Brian Wilson at 75

Today is Brian Wilson’s seventy-fifth birthday. I’ve talked about him often enough on this blog that it almost seems a ludicrous understatement to say I’m a fan.

But I’d like to explain, since it’s his birthday, what it is that makes him important to me. This is going to be a bit rambling, I’m afraid.

I’d like to say first off that I don’t claim any special insight into Brian’s personality or life — I’ve met him twice in my life — for minutes one time and seconds another — and while I’ve had longer conversations with people who know him, I’ve never enquired about his personal life because that is absolutely none of my business.

But the Brian Wilson who is revealed by his art — who may or may not be anything like the real man — I know him very well. Very well indeed.

My dad has, in his own mind, a special relationship with John Lennon. They’re both from the same city, they both had fathers who abandoned them when they were very small and re-entered their lives in their twenties, and who died without re-establishing much of a relationship. Both their mothers died when they were seventeen. Both were highly intelligent but probably dyslexic, and dismissed as troublemakers at school. And so on.

They’re probably not really anything alike, but there were enough similarities in their lives (apart from the whole being in the Beatles thing) that my dad thinks of records like John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band almost as being expressions of himself. They speak to him on a very personal level that very little else does. And Lennon’s speech patterns were close enough to my dad’s that my wife sometimes gets freaked out hearing him in interviews or session recordings because he sounds so similar to her.

And this brings me back to Brian Wilson. When Holly and I went to watch the film Love and Mercy, a rather wonderful biopic based around Wilson’s life, she got *seriously* freaked out during the scenes where John Cusack was playing the older Wilson. “He’s playing you!” she kept saying.

Now, I share no life experiences at all with Wilson, and have very little in common with him as a person as far as I can tell. There’s not the same parallel there as there is with my father and Lennon.

But there’s *something* similar there. A certain way in which the world has damaged both of us. Possibly a similar neurological condition. A certain view of the world.

Whatever it is, there’s a connection I feel with Brian Wilson’s music that’s deeper than I can express verbally, though I’m trying here. A wounded innocence, an almost childlike attempt to take joy in things that you know will hurt you. A deep lack of self-worth, almost a disgust at oneself for existing. A howl at the injustice that permeates the world. A sense of definite wrongness.

Some writers or other artists have work I can experience and think “yes, this person thinks like me”. Wilson, almost uniquely, has the ability to make me say “this person *feels* like me”. And the music of his I like the most is often not the exquisitely perfect, crafted, music which has gained him critical acclaim — Pet Sounds is an incredible album, of course, but I’d take Smiley Smile or The Beach Boys Love You, or the hissy bootlegs of fourth-generation tape copies of his 1977 demos, over it.

But that’s not to treat him as some sort of instinctive primitivist, an outsider artist. Wilson is often treated that way by the kind of people who want to mysticise mental illness, but while his illness has obviously affected at least some of what his music says (and probably that’s at least in part what I’m responding to) it doesn’t affect how his music says it.

As a composer, arranger, and (at least until the mid 1980s) a singer, Wilson is a consummate craftsman. He is someone who has studied popular music of all styles — doo-wop, jazz harmonies, Chuck Berry, Phil Spector, George Gershwin — and created his own vocabulary from those things in a very deliberate, determined manner. He famously said “I’m not a genius, I’m just a hard-working guy”, but he’s both.

What he has to communicate — the particular emotions his music, and only his music, conveys — is innate, and not something that can be learned. But producing something like Good Vibrations isn’t innate. That’s something that requires hard work. And without that hard work, he wouldn’t be able to communicate the emotions in that way. Millions of people undoubtedly feel the way Brian Wilson does, but only he made “God Only Knows” or “Surf’s Up” or “A Day in the Life of a Tree” or “Still I Dream of It” or “Where Is She?”

So… well, I can’t express what Brian Wilson’s music means to me, because I’m not as good at my art as he is at his. But what I can say is that literally nothing in my life for the last twenty-two years, since I first properly listened to Pet Sounds as a teenager, would be the same without his music.

He still tours, and still has the best touring band in the world, but he’s been noticeably frailer for the last couple of years. I’m going to see him again in Liverpool next month, and these days I always wonder if it will be the last time — not because I expect him to die (he’s someone who’s far stronger than he appears — he’s had to be, to survive at all) but because he’s seventy-five, and has more than earned retirement if he wants it.

But selfishly, I hope he doesn’t want it. He still seems to get some joy out of performing, in a way he didn’t before the late 1990s, and his performances definitely bring joy to the audiences.

I’ve been critical, over the years, of a lot of his work — he’s as capable as anyone of turning out a bad or lazy album — but I’ll never be able to criticise him as an artist. For Brian Wilson the artist, and to the extent I can care about a man I’ve never had a proper conversation with for Brian Wilson the man, I can only feel love and mercy.

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Posts I Need To Write

This is a reminder to self, because the heat is destroying my short-term memory even by my standards. I have a lot of ideas for things I need to write at the moment, but I’m also currently doing freelance work, finishing a novel, tweaking the Beach Boys book, finishing an overdue story, and editing Holly’s book. And sitting around almost completely naked, complaining about the heat and humidity.

So, things I need to write soon:

The rest of my Hugo reviews.
A post about storytelling in the Arabian Nights. Maybe a series of these.
A post or posts about shared universes and why I love them even though they often lead to terrible storytelling.
A post in praise of Greg Egan.
A look at the Lib Dem leadership candidates once announced, and what I think they mean for the future of the party if any.
A post about Stephen King
Some thoughts I have about Doctor Who, which need to take shape properly before they become a post, but which are sort of tickling me. They seem to tie into the shared universe stuff and be about Gallifrey.
Two big posts for August I need to start working on already — Jack Kirby’s centenary and the fortieth anniversary of Elvis’ death
Some stuff about Menippean satire
And the next two blogged books — either Nilsson or Roy Wood, and a book on autism.
(Also I need to restart the Batposts)

I’ll try to get at least one of these up tonight

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Destroyer: Chapter 5

Ian Fleming hadn’t had much of a chance to head into town recently. While he was technically still working at the Admiralty, he’d been seconded to Bletchley for several months now, and London was too far away, and too dangerous, for him to travel there casually. So when Dennis Wheatley invited him to come into the city for a drink, Fleming jumped at the excuse. Wheatley was one of the few people in the world that Fleming knew could both be trusted and be helpful with his problem.

Fleming and Wheatley had been friendly acquaintances for some time, and Fleming couldn’t help but admire the older man. Wheatley had had few of Fleming’s advantages in life, but had nonetheless managed to rise to a much higher station than Fleming had, thanks largely to the success of a series of novels he had written which combined espionage and international intrigue with plenty of sexualised violence. And Wheatley’s new-found wealth had allowed him to live the kind of extravagant life to which Fleming could only aspire.

They met in Wheatley’s club. It was one of the more discreet establishments, and one where rationing didn’t seem to have affected the ability to get a decent meal and a good drink. Conversation during dinner was mostly casual – mutual acquaintances’ latest romantic escapades, the sales of Wheatley’s most recent book (a potboiling thriller about occult forces aiding the Nazis, which Fleming had made sure to read before the meeting), and the lamentably socialistic policies being pursued by the National Government in recent weeks.

After dining, they retired to leather armchairs, with a glass of Imperial Tokay for Wheatley, a whisky for Fleming, and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars, to discuss more serious matters. After a reasonable amount of small talk for appearances’ sake, Wheatley set his glass down on the small table between them and turned to Fleming.

“This Hess business – your doing, I take it?”

“Now, Dennis, you know I couldn’t possibly tell you that even if it were true, at least in a public place such as this.”

“Nonsense. You know as well as I do that the men at this club are, without exception, as trustworthy as any in the Empire.”

“Even so.”

“Come now, you must have something you can tell me?”

“Not about Hess, directly, but something you may find interesting.”

“Oh?”

“I’m planning to get in touch with Aleister Crowley soon. I have a little job of work for which he may be useful. Given the subject of your recent novels, I thought it might amuse you.”

Wheatley raised an eyebrow. “You are joking, I hope?”

“What do you mean?”

“The man’s an absolute monster. The very Devil himself.”

“Then I shall be sure to bring my longest spoon. But you know Crowley, I believe?”

“A little, to my shame.”

“Have you any advice?”

“Well, you’ve already refused my most important advice – to avoid him at all costs. But whatever you do, don’t mispronounce his name like that. He has a little rhyme – his name is Crowley, because he is so holy, and his enemies call him Crowley, in wish to treat him foully.”

“Noted.”

“I know Crowley of old. He can be a charmer, if he wants to. Frightfully clever, frightfully witty. But cold with it. And the man’s a bugger. Of course, you and I are men of the world, we know that such things go on. But he’s proud of his beastliness.”

“Many of them are. Goes with the territory.”

Wheatley nodded and took a sip of his Imperial Tokay. “Crowley’s an odd fish all round. Writes about sacrificing children, engages in the most frightful beastliness imaginable, and a cruel, cruel, bastard of a man. But he has his own principles, of a sort, and if you’re on the level with him he might help you. But don’t trust him an inch.”

“I’ll bear it in mind. Anything else I should know?”

Wheatley paused for a second, then drained his glass and placed it on the table. He leaned in, a serious look on his face.

“Look. I know you’re a sceptic about this whole magic business. So am I. You know I’m a rational man. But…have you ever heard of a poet called Victor Neuberg?”

“Can’t say I have. He any good?”

“No. But that’s not the point. Crowley performed an enchantment on him and convinced him he’d been turned into a camel!”

“Had he?”

“No, of course not!”

“So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that, using only the power of his mind, Crowley managed to convince him that he had been. Poor man ended up in an asylum. Still there, as far as I know.”

“Surely he could just have been doolally to start with?”

“Possibly, possibly. I mean, very few people spending time with Crowley are liable to have their heads completely screwed on, are they?”

Wheatley snapped his fingers in the air, and within seconds a waiter had brought refills of the two men’s drinks. It was reassuring, Fleming thought to himself, that in these times of rationing and austerity it was still possible to live a civilised life in the capital, if one had the right friends.

“Still,” Wheatley continued, “it’s disturbing just how many people in Crowley’s life end up dead, or mad, or both. He turns everyone against him eventually, because he cares nothing about anyone other than himself, and he’s elevated his narcissism almost to the level of a religious principle. He’s a very dangerous man.”

Fleming sipped his drink and thought for a while, trying to find the best way of phrasing the next thought.

“Look, Dennis…I see two possibilities here. Either Crowley has no powers other than an ability to persuade the gullible to do what he wants – in which case we can make use of him, or…”

“Or?”

“Or Crowley is a magician, and magic does exist. In which case, given that the Germans have been looking into magic for years, we need to be able to make use of his magic, and quickly.”

“And you think you can make use of a man like Crowley? Rather try to make use of a bull elephant in musk.”

“Ah, but a bull elephant charging at one’s enemies could be a great deal of use.”

“Quite. Until the moment it turns around.”

Fleming sipped his whisky thoughtfully, and the talk turned to other matters.

This is an excerpt from my novel, Destroyer. If you like this chapter, please buy the book. It can be bought in hardback from Lulu. The Kindle and paperback editions are available from Amazon (UK) and (US). For non-Kindle ebook versions This Books2Read Universal Link will give you links for your preferred ebook retailer.

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On Empathy

It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that the neurotypicals are at it again.

Tomorrow is Autism Pride Day, so of course today Twitter has been dominated by responses to a stupid tweet from a neurotypical journalist “thinking out loud”. She’s deleted the tweet and issued a fauxpology, but what she said was that Theresa May has no empathy because she’s a “super-functioning” autistic person.

So, just to make things very, very, very, clear for the ten millionth time:

Lack of empathy is not a characteristic of autism. Some autistic people have no empathy, just as some (most?) people with neurotypicality do, but most autistic people have a far, far higher degree of empathy than most people with neurotypicality.

Autistic people sometimes have difficulty in reading other people’s emotional states. That difficulty is not due to a lack of empathy. It’s a perceptual difference, and is roughly equivalent to a blind person being unable to see someone smiling, or a deaf person being unable to hear tone of voice. If you don’t think that blind or deaf people lack empathy, then don’t think it of us, either.

And this is not something that is limited to autistic people. People with neurotypicality have *exactly the same difficulty* in reading autistic people’s emotional states. The main difference is that autistic people are punished for this inability, while people with neurotypicality are given a free pass. We’re forced to conform to neurotypical forms of expression, and told we’re doing it wrong anyway. When it comes to emotional communication, autistic people are like native French speakers being forced to communicate in English, and being told that any time we speak with an accent or misunderstand an idiom it’s because we’re literally subhuman and don’t have the basic human quality of empathy.

When autistic people do understand someone’s emotional state — when the person with neurotypicality has managed to learn to communicate successfully with people who are unlike them, or when the autistic person has expended massive amounts of mental effort to become emotionally bilingual — they are usually far more empathetic than people with neurotypicality. (I say “usually” because the things which stop people having empathy can coexist with autism just as they can with neurotypicality. Autism isn’t a magic wand that makes you into a good person).

For many autistic people, in fact, we are over-sensitive to other people’s emotional states. I can become so overwhelmed by someone else’s sadness that I lose all ability to function and will do literally anything to help them. Most of the autistic people I know are so aware of injustice and hurt around them that they put all their energy into fighting injustices that many people with neurotypicality are completely unaware of. Distance-diagnosing people is pernicious whenever and wherever it’s done, but I’d say that figures like Gandhi or Albert Schweitzer show far more of the characteristics of autism than May ever has, and are far more typical of how autistic people respond to injustice.

People with neurotypicality seem far, far, more likely in my experience to only show empathy for members of a particular group with which they identify (white people, English people, men, Christians, heterosexuals, members of their own family or whatever). It’s certainly not true for *all* people with neurotypicality, but as a crude generalisation they separate people into in-groups and out-groups and only care about in-groups. Autistic people, on the other hand, very rarely see ourselves as members of a group at all, and don’t often distinguish in the same way between deserving and undeserving targets of empathy. Which of those actually sounds more like Theresa May?

(Yes, I’ve just done precisely that separating in-groups and out-groups thing, and unfairly demonised an out-group based on it. Hurts, doesn’t it? I actually took about twenty goes to write that paragraph because I didn’t want to unfairly hurt my friends with neurotypicality, even though I think that kind of paragraph is absolutely necessary as a rhetorical device in this post.)

Theresa May is the Daily Mail made flesh, a perfect living representation of the views, values, and behaviours of middle-class, middle-aged, white, suburban England. She is stupid, cruel, and appears to have no hinterland whatsoever. These are not characteristics of autism, but characteristics of privilege.

Evil is not a disability, and disabled people are not evil.

And this matters for two reasons. The most obvious one is that this is being used to excuse May, and she does not deserve excuses, but blame.

But more importantly, this kind of bigotry kills people. Autistic people die, on average, sixteen years younger than people with neurotypicality (for autistic people who also have epilepsy, it can be much, much younger than that — if I were one of the twenty to forty percent of autistic people who have epileptic seizures, my current life expectancy would be about four months). For autistic people without comorbid neurological conditions, the two biggest causes of death are stress-related heart disease and suicide.

As someone on blood pressure medication because stress has at times raised my blood pressure to 200/100, and who has suicidal ideation caused by depression on a semi-regular basis, this is a statistic that holds a very personal meaning to me. I would quite like to live past my mid fifties, if it’s all the same to neurotypical broadsheet journalists who complain about others’ lack of empathy.

(Meanwhile of course there are “autism charities” which suggest that more empathy is needed — for parents of autistic children who murder them.)

And the only way to increase autistic people’s life expectancy (other than prompt treatment of comorbid conditions like epilepsy and diabetes, which we are at very high risk of) is to remove the stress which comes from living in a world designed by and for people with different brain architectures to ours. And the very, very, smallest, most trivial, first step in that process is to recognise that we are human, and that we share the human capacity for love, for empathy, and for decency.

There are a lot of words I could use for what Theresa May is, none of them complimentary. And none of them are “autistic”.

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Why People Can’t Think

As people who follow me on Twitter will know, I’ve recently been getting almost apopleptic about the way humanity — myself very much included — keeps making stupid, counterproductive, self-harming decisions, on every level from the tiniest decision to the most important. People are, for the most part, *really really really stupid* and oblivious to reality — and *EVEN WHEN YOU TAKE THAT INTO ACCOUNT* will still do really stupid stuff that’s easy for anyone (other than themselves) to see.

(And again, just to be clear, I am condemning myself as much as anyone else here. The day when I start to think of myself as actually being able to think straight is the day you’ll know there’s no hope left for me at all.)

Of course, some of this is because of broken incentive systems, lack of information, cognitive biases, and so on — but there’s something more to it than that. The way people *just can’t think properly* has been bugging me for some time. But now, I think I’ve at least found out *why* we’re all so stupid.

I was googling for an old Grant Morrison interview about Hypertime last night, clicked the wrong link, and found myself down a link-following rabbit hole which led me to this paper. And that explained *a lot*.

Traditionally, cognitive scientists have argued that we’ve evolved to perceive the world around us more or less correctly. The argument goes that you have a model in your head of how the world works, you take in new information from outside and update that model, and that process iterates til the model more-or-less matches the real world. (You can model this as updating using Bayes’ rule). The argument — which I always accepted — has been that this could have evolved quite simply. If such a thing as a tiger which eats people exists in the real world, and you have a model in your brain which says “there’s a tiger over there. Tigers eat people. Run away”, you’re more likely not to be eaten by a tiger, and so you’re more likely to survive and reproduce. So brains should evolve to create models of the world that contain tigers where there are real tigers, and which contain no tigers where there are none.

In the paper I linked, though — Natural selection and veridical perceptions by Justin T. Mark, Brian B. Marion, and Donald D. Hoffman — the authors make a different argument. They claim that what we see, what we perceive, is a model that may not actually represent anything that really exists.

They create a simple game-theoretical model of an environment, and put two simulated agents in it. One agent, “truth”, takes in all the information it can find before making a decision based on a complex, accurate, model of the world. Another, “simple”, takes in a tiny bit of information, and makes its decision based on a more simple, less accurate, model of the world.

If you put the two of those in the same environment, there are many cases where the simple model will outcompete the truth model into extinction. Not all cases, but as many as the other way round (it depends on how scarce resources are, how complex the environment is, and so on).

But then they add a third agent, “interface”. This agent, unlike the other two, *doesn’t have a model that represents what’s actually in the world at all*. It has a world model that lumps together wildly different things, based not on any categories they actually belong to.

To take our tiger analogy further, the “truth” model doesn’t make a decision until it sees that something’s a tiger. The “simple” model sees something cat-shaped, but doesn’t know if it’s a tiger that’s far away or a cat that’s close by before it makes its decision. This third agent sees a tiger and a bomb as the same thing and can’t distinguish between them. It creates a category of “threatening-type thing”, and sticks the tiger and the bomb both in there, and treats them the same way — it literally can’t tell the difference, and so it might decide to try to defuse the tiger or shoot the bomb with a sedative.

And in many of their tests — not all, but many of them — the interface model dominates both “truth” and “simple”, to the point that “truth” and “simple” become extinct and only “interface” survives.

Put simply, there is no consistent evolutionary pressure that produces actual intelligence. Intelligent reasoning and perception can be favoured sometimes, but more often evolution will produce a particular kind of stupidity — the kind that ignores details, lumps completely unrelated things together and literally can’t tell the difference, and makes snap decisions before waiting for the facts to actually be in. The kind that creates a model of how the world works that has only a limited connection to any actually existing reality, and which then doesn’t ever bother to update that model based on new information.

We probably haven’t evolved to see the world how it really is. Rather we’ve evolved to have prejudices based on no facts. We’ve evolved to keep doing the same thing over and over even though it always goes wrong. We’ve evolved, in fact, to have the kind of brain that says “well, I’m entitled to my opinion” whenever it’s confronted with its mistakes, and to carry on believing exactly the same thing it did before.

That’s not the only thing our brain has evolved to do — mixed-strategy players usually win in game theory over single-strategy ones, and so some of us can, sometimes, a little bit, occasionally learn from our mistakes and understand things that are actually happening in the world. Some of us can occasionally say “hang on, that makes no sense”, and even actually change our behaviour.

But we’ve not evolved to do that well, or to do it often. So when you think of the old SubGenius slogan “see how stupid the average person is? Well, by definition, half of them are more stupid than that!“, don’t think of it as condemning people.

The amazing thing isn’t how stupid people are. The amazing thing, given the evolutionary pressures, is that anyone, ever, does anything clever at all.

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Quick Question

Proper post in a bit, but… as the third Beach Boys book will be out soon, I should be starting my next music book once it’s out. There are two main possibilities — a book on Roy Wood or one on Nilsson. Which would people prefer?

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Ten Questions Someone Should Ask The Lib Dem Leadership Contenders

1) Are you committed to leading the Liberal Democrats, or would you rather lead some rebranded “centre party” with a load of Blairite and Cameroon MPs who don’t even have the support of their own parties?

2) Are you committed to fighting to stay in the European Union?

3) Will you also fight to stay within the Single Market, or are you more interested in people’s “legitimate concerns” about immigrants?

4) Do you believe that gay-“cure”-like torture “treatments” for autism like the discredited ABA are in any way acceptable?

5) Do you believe that it is acceptable to write articles about autism which have the input of “autism parents” but not of actual autistic people?

6) Will you commit to keeping to the party’s proposals to reverse benefits cuts and get rid of the “bedroom tax”?

7) How will you deal with anonymous briefing from “senior Lib Dem sources” that you’re useless?

8) What are your thoughts on electoral pacts with other parties?

9) What would your single biggest campaign issue be were a General Election to be called tomorrow?

10) Can you answer uncomfortable questions like those above, ones that might make you horribly unpopular in the press, with the party, or both, with a simple, straightforward answer, or will you give a waffly evasive non-answer that will come back to bite us in two years and cause massive infighting?

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