Three Books For Every (Beach) Boy…

You wait all your life for an autobiography by a member of a classic surf vocal group, and then three come along all at once. Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy by Mike Love with James S Hirsch was released a month ago today; Surf City: The Jan & Dean Story by Dean Torrence (with a foreword by Love) came out a week later; and then today I Am Brian Wilson by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman came out.

I saved reviewing these until all three came out, because they’re rather more interesting to compare and contrast than any of them are as books individually.

Before going any further, I want to make something clear — when I talk about the three authors here, I am talking about the persona they (and in two cases their co-authors) have chosen to portray in their books. NOTHING I say should be taken as a judgement on them as real people. In the case of the two co-authored books I don’t even know what proportion of the book is actually in the words of its subject. So when I say “Wilson seems to be…” or “Love thinks…”, that’s *my impression of a character who may or may not bear any resemblance to the real person*.

All three books tell the same basic story –going to high school in Southern California in the late fifties, forming a vocal group with high school friends (and, in the Beach Boys’ case, family members), huge success at a young age, coming to a disastrous end in 1966, rebuilding popularity as a nostalgia act… it’s a familiar story to anyone who is at all likely to buy any of these books, and truth be told none of them contain very much that’s going to surprise anyone.

And what’s surprising is how similar the books are in many ways, particularly in the assessments of the other participants. Dennis Wilson was impossible not to love even though every description of his actual actions sounds like he was an utter monster, Jan Berry was Dennis Wilson if he’d been a supergenius, Carl Wilson was impossible to get to know and a very serious person, a mediator between warring factions, Al Jardine is a great singer and can hold a grudge for decades, and Bruce Johnston exists.

(Seriously, one of the odd things about all of these books is how little any of these men have to say about some of the people they’ve worked with off and on for fifty or sixty years. I’d *really* like to see a Bruce Johnston autobiography, as he’s almost like Zelig).

Torrence’s book is, in many ways, the weakest of the three. Torrence had very limited creative input into his records, and so there’s very little about the process of making them, with the years the duo were successful being skimmed over, mostly in anecdote form (the time he pretended to Dennis Wilson that he’d stolen $10,000 from a promoter, the time he played football with Elvis). Quite understandably, but annoyingly for the reader, he devotes only a few pages to the decades of touring he did with Jan Berry when Berry was severely disabled due to brain damage after his near-fatal car crash. He doesn’t mention, *at all*, his one major creative contribution to Jan & Dean, the rather good solo album, Save For A Rainy Day he recorded and released under the Jan & Dean name to keep the name alive while Berry was unable to function. And his peripheral involvement in the Frank Sinatra jr. kidnapping is dismissed in two sentences — “It’s a long story, but, one of the guys is writing a book about it. Anyone who wants to, can check it out when the book gets published.”
So it’s a very light book, not really offering much insight. But its greatest flaw is also its greatest asset.

The other two books are ghostwritten, which means essentially that they were written by journalists, based on extensive interview transcripts. Torrence’s book, by contrast, seems to be entirely his own text. This is an important difference, because spoken and written English are almost two different media, and transcribed speech doesn’t work particularly well in printed form. While Torrence isn’t the world’s greatest prose stylist, he’s competent, and the result is extremely readable. It’s the best *written* of the three books.

But unfortunately one gets the impression that the book hasn’t had an editor or fact-checker at all. Names, for example, are constantly misspelled — Ray “Pulmon”, “Murray” Wilson, Tom “Hewlett”. Elvis’ manager is “The General”. And it’s not even consistent — Stan “Freeberg” turns up on page 109 while he’s Stan “Freeburg” on p133 (his actual surname was Freberg).

One thing Torrence’s book shares with Wilson’s, though, is a generosity of spirit. Torrence could probably have made his book much more fascinating by talking about the difficulties of his relationship with Berry in great detail, but other than an impatience with his cocaine habit in the early 80s, there’s nothing there. He prefers to focus on Berry’s good points, as is his right.

Likewise, no-one — other than the monstrous “Doctor” Landy — comes off badly in Wilson’s book, which if nothing else is exemplary in its graciousness. There are people discussed in the book who are (according to fan rumour in some cases, and their own statements in others) permanently on the outs with Wilson and the people around him. They’re all talked about entirely positively, and thanked in the acknowledgements.

His notoriously fractious relationship with Love is only discussed in passing, as are the end of the 2012 reunion tour and Love’s litigiousness, while Love’s vocal and lyrical talents are praised. Everyone’s his friend, or his buddy, and astonishingly talented. Some of this seems to be conflict aversion and a distaste for talking about unpleasantness — there are bits when discussing his working relationship with Joe Thomas during the recording of Imagination where he’s clearly upset by Thomas’ dominance in those sessions, but where he’s also clearly eager not to dwell on that. But most of it seems to be a genuine wish to see the best in everyone.

This is most obvious in the chapter, Fathers & Sons, that deals most with Wilson’s abusive father, Murry. Murry Wilson was, in many ways, an utter monster. Yet Wilson has always, throughout his life, been at great pains to emphasise the positive aspects of his father. Some of this, it is painfully clear, is the standard reaction of the abused child, to make excuses for their abuser. But it’s seen throughout the whole book in smaller ways, and it becomes clear that Wilson is, fundamentally, just someone who doesn’t like to say — or possibly think — bad things about anyone. He talks at one point about C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves being a favourite book of his, and how impressed he was by Lewis’ writing about charity, and the whole book is a very charitable one.

One gets the impression from the book, too, that Wilson is a fundamentally simple person. Not in a pejorative sense, but the portrait of his life as it is now is very detailed, and mostly consists of him watching Wheel Of Fortune, going to the deli, and jokingly tricking family members into giving him sweet food he’s not meant to eat on his diet. The “greatest day of his life” was when he went with Jeff Foskett and his friend Ray to see the current touring Four Freshmen, and had a Margarita.

But while the book has been promoted as being about Wilson’s struggle to overcome his problems, he’s (unsurprisingly) vague about much of the detail there. On the other hand, there’s all sorts of detail about the music in this book which is absolutely fascinating, particularly in less-well-covered aspects of his career. I was gratified to see that my own guess in The Beach Boys On CD Vol 2 as to the confused origin of Sail On Sailor (“One suspects that Wilson brought his initial idea to several different collaborators, at different times, without necessarily thinking to mention to them that he was working with other people”) is largely accurate — he talks about writing the song with Ray Kennedy, and then later Van Dyke Parks bringing him an idea which he “turned into” the earlier song.

We also learn that he thinks Al Jardine’s finest vocal is on The Beaks Of Eagles (a song he talks about a few times), and that his original conception for Mount Vernon & Fairway was to have it be *much* longer and have the Prince hear several whole songs on his transistor radio — the Beach Boys doing cover versions of old fifties hits.

There’s a surprising amount of detail on the creation of That Lucky Old Sun, as well, including one interesting thing I didn’t know — he’d asked Mike Love to rewrite the lyrics for Mexican Girl, and Love said he could (and he’d make it “twenty-five percent better”), but he wasn’t going to because he didn’t want to write lyrics for finished tracks, but only to collaborate on new material (the same complaint he had four years later about the Beach Boys’ reunion album).

That lack of collaboration is also mentioned, quite a bit, in Love’s book.

Unlike the other two, Love is on the defensive, understandably given his reputation as Satan incarnate. A great deal of the book is given over to providing counterarguments against various negative portrayals of him. Most of this is explicit (like him going into great detail about how he never said “don’t fuck with the formula” and how he doesn’t believe he’s responsible for Smile going unfinished), but some is implicit.

In particular, he never directly brings up the rumours that have gone round for years (never, I hasten to add, with any substantiation) that he’s racist, but a lot of the book seems nonetheless to be a defence against the claim, starting in the first few pages with a cringeworthy anecdote about using the n word around his black high school friends and being accepted doing so because he was such great friends with them all, and his discussion of how much he likes R&B. As you read through the book you notice that there are tons of anecdotes about his great friendships with all his Great Showbiz Mates — and that with the exception of Deepak Chopra, all these Great Showbiz Mates are dead, and with the exception of George Harrison, almost all the dead ones (Richard Pryor, Mohammed Ali, Marvin Gaye…) were black. Once you notice the pattern, it starts to seem a bit like the “The Chinese; a great bunch of lads” speech from Father Ted.

But while Love does defend himself, at length, against charges he thinks unfair, he is also *very* willing to admit to other flaws in his behaviour, particularly as a younger man, and especially in his relationships with women and with his children. He is painfully honest at points about his own flaws. A recurring motif in the book is “the switchblade and the butterfly” — his acknowledgement that as a teenager he would carry a switchblade knife and brass knuckles around, but also loved to go for walks in the countryside looking at butterflies.

He seems to have mellowed a *lot* in the last couple of decades, whether due to his age, the influence of his wife, or both, but the portrait he paints of himself in his twenties and thirties is of someone who was verbally and physically aggressive, and who seems to justify at least a quarter of the bad things people have said about him. But he *also* seems genuinely remorseful for his behaviour, and for the most part one comes out of the book thinking of him in the way one thinks of a cranky, curmudgeonly, but charming old relative who one loves despite themself.

The one exception is when he talks about Brian Wilson.

Now this is difficult to get across, and is going to sound weird. But… in large part the book reads almost like the writing of a jilted lover. He seems genuinely, fervently, desperately to love his cousin, and to be hurt that there’s a wedge between them — even as he is also, obviously, bitterly resentful of the cult of personality around him.

In particular, there’s a weird, weird, tension between mental health denialism and a resentment of Wilson’s wife Melinda, who he sees as controlling, as coming between them, and as being the reason the two of them can’t just sit down and write songs in the same room any more (Wilson, in his book, says he just doesn’t like to write that way any more, and likes to discover music in the studio). He believes that Melinda Wilson is in control of Brian — yet at the same time he also believes that Brian Wilson was fully responsible for a great injustice that Love has resented for the last fifty years.

Murry Wilson, the Wilson brothers’ abusive father, ran their publishing company, Sea Of Tunes. He screwed his own sons out of millions (in legal manoeuvring described in more detail in Love’s book than I’ve seen anywhere else — Love’s book is, as one might expect, very good on the details of lawsuits, trials, and contracts, and a very useful source for that), but he also made sure that on a lot of songs to which Love contributed, he received neither credit nor money, with all of both going to Brian Wilson. This required Brian’s signature on some documents, and Love thinks that this proves he was complicit in his father’s theft.

And he seems to think this because he seems to dismiss — in every case *except* when Brian is being “controlled” by Melinda not to work with Love any more — any idea that anyone could have any undue influence or control over Brian Wilson at all. He seems fundamentally just not to understand the nature of Wilson’s illness. Personally, I have no trouble at all believing that a naive, conflict-averse, young man in the early stages of schizoaffective disorder, when told to sign documents by his domineering, abusive, father whom he nonetheless trusts has his best interests at heart, would sign them without understanding the implications.

Love, on the other hand, is insistent that Wilson was fully responsible for these actions, which he sees as a great betrayal.

But the complete lack of understanding or empathy towards Wilson’s illness actually makes the whole thing seem even sadder. Love clearly believes that Brian Wilson is still the young man who was closer to him than his own siblings, and doesn’t grasp on a fundamental level that Wilson’s mental health should have an effect on his behaviour and their relationship. It’s terribly, terribly, sad to see.

Love’s book is a very, very, strange mixture of self-justification and self-flagellation, of self-awareness and utter cluelessness, often in the same sentence. Despite how it may appear above, I actually finished the book liking Love slightly more than I did when I started it, and understanding him a lot more. It’s the book of someone who started out as an unpleasant person, who has tried hard to become a better one and largely, but not wholly, succeeded, and who has less self-knowledge than he thinks.

None of these books are essential, all are readable. If I had to choose one, I’d choose Wilson’s book, but I suspect the value of all three will be as source material for future Beach Boys biographies (I doubt there’ll be many more Jan and Dean ones — Mark Passmore’s book is as good as we’re going to get there, I think). But as someone with an obsession with this music, I’m very glad to have read all of them, flawed as they all are.

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For Patreons: Which Comics Should I Review Tomorrow?

I’m asking this both on my blog and on Patreon because I don’t know who reads my pieces where, but it’s aimed at my Patreon backers. As I said last week, I’m going to start doing weekly comics reviews, free posts but for Patreon backers only, reviewing comics backers suggest (if no-one makes any suggestions I’ll just choose something at random). So what comics out tomorrow would you be interested in me reviewing? If you don’t know what’s out, has the list.

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Gotta Keep Those Loving Good Vibrations Happening…

October 10, 1966, was a big day for my personal musical obsessions. The Monkees’ first album was released, and on the same day the Beach Boys released possibly the finest single ever released, “Good Vibrations”.
I’ve written possibly too much about both here, over the years, but had to acknowledge the fiftieth anniversary. But it’s the Beach Boys song I’m going to talk about here — the Monkees’ true greatness wouldn’t come for a few months yet.

I’ve talked about Good Vibrations a lot, of course — there are actual chapters on it in two of my books — about how it was made, the structure of the record, the sound of it, how it affected the Beach Boys’ career, how it influenced other musicians. But what I’ve not done, much, is talk about how the record affects me.

It’s certainly a record that has a lot of memories attached to it. I remember sitting round with various friends, when I was about twenty, the only non-stoned person in the room. We’d been listening to Lumpy Gravy, one of the strangest albums ever to be released by a major record label, and everyone was so stoned they were just accepting it as normal music. I then put on “Good Vibrations”, and after a minute or so a couple of people actually started *screaming*, saying “get it off! It’s in my head!”

It is, without a doubt, the single strangest record ever to reach number one in the UK. The catchy chorus belies a really *bizarre* structure, arrangement, and production.

But it’s also — and this is why I’ve not talked much about my feelings about the record — a hard record to truly love. It’s a record I *admire*, one I *enjoy*. It’s a record I, as an occasional musician, aspire to emulate, one whose pleasures are lasting, one I’m still learning from today, more than twenty years after I first paid proper attention to it and fifty years after it was released.

But it’s not a record I can truly engage with emotionally. Which is surprising for Brian Wilson, who has described his writing as putting together “feels”. He’s normally the most emotional of songwriters, and even in so intellectual a song as Surf’s Up or Wonderful, there’s a sense of aching there, a sense of longing, but also a sense of comfort.

There’s none of that, to my mind, in Good Vibrations, at least as it sounds on the finished record. It’s brilliant — and again, I want to emphasise this is one of my favourite records of all time, and one of the pinnacles of the history of recorded sound — but it’s a distanced, unemotional, brilliance. If the feeling of Brian Wilson’s other best work is like a friend comforting you, or hugging the person you love the most, the feeling from Good Vibrations — the feeling *I* get, at least — is more like contemplating Turing’s paper on the halting problem. There’s an astonishment at the cleverness and the beauty of it, but no real emotional connection to the record.

But that’s the record. Live is a different matter, and the live performances of it may hold the key both to why it’s such an astonishing record and why it’s one that’s so hard to connect with.

I’ve made the point before, but there is a huge difference between the way Mike Love’s current touring Beach Boys play the song and the way that Brian Wilson’s band play it — even though they’re playing the same song, in largely the same arrangement. Both bands “sound like the record” — if you saw either band play it live you’d be impressed by how much like the record they *did* sound, in fact — and even the few changes they make are made by both bands (for example singing “tay-ta-tations” instead of just “tations” before “I don’t know where…”)

Yet Mike Love’s version evokes emotion all right. It’s a scary, exciting, song, throbbing and pulsing away. When you hear the touring Beach Boys play the song live, you can understand the “it’s in my head” response. It’s all juddering dadada dadada triplets, screeching theremin, and garage band intensity.

And Brian Wilson, when he plays it live, evokes a totally different feeling. In his band’s hands it’s a warm, meditative, contemplative, almost prayerlike song, all flutes and organs and gentleness.

Again, they’re playing the same notes, in the same arrangements, give or take the larger size of Wilson’s band. It’s just they’re putting different eyebrows on the notes (to use a very useful phrase of Frank Zappa’s). Tiny differences in emphasis and nuance — in what elements of the recording to stress given the limitations of reproducing it on stage — lead to what sound to me like very different outcomes.

(As with all things Beach Boys, this may reflect bias on the listener’s part. But this is a difference I’ve noticed in every Wilson or touring Beach Boys show I’ve seen since at least 2008. The 2012 reunion tour sounded more like Wilson’s version than Love’s.)

And I think this may be the key to the record’s not having — for me — the same emotional resonance as God Only Knows or Til I Die or even something like Honkin’ Down The Highway. Those records were trying to evoke a single emotion, and succeeded. Good Vibrations, I think, is trying to evoke *all* the emotions. It’s trying to encompass literally everything. It’s Brian Wilson’s masterwork and he’s going to try to put the whole of human experience into three minutes and thirty-six seconds.

The result is, paradoxically, a record that’s so great it doesn’t touch me, so admirable it’s hard to love. But introduce a flaw into it, by trying to reproduce the irreproducible live, and a record containing everything collapses down into a performance that contains just *something* — and that something is utterly spectacular.

At a conservative estimate, I’ve listened to Good Vibrations — the single, as it was released in 1966 — a thousand times in my life. I hope to live to listen to it a thousand more. If I do, I will enjoy every one of those listens. It’s an amazing work.

And tomorrow, I plan to review the autobiographies of the two men who wrote the song, along with the autobiography of a friend and occasional collaborator of theirs…

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The Trump Tape — #TooManyMen

Yes, it’s the Trump Tapes (like the Troggs Tapes but far more crass) post you all knew was coming, because since when was I sensible enough to not open my big mouth about a controversial topic? (Obviously, trigger warnings for general rape culture nastiness follow).

My thoughts on this, though, have little to do with the tape itself. The revelation that a sociopathic loudmouthed braggart who has been accused by multiple independent people on multiple occasions of being a rapist might, at one point, have bragged about committing sexual assault is about as astonishing to me as the other great political “revelation” this week — that Hillary Clinton is a pragmatic centrist politician funded by big business. I know. I was shocked too. My whole worldview is in turmoil.

Nor am I at all surprised by the loathsome people who’ve come out of the woodwork to say “that’s just how men talk. Every man talks that way.” I mean, I didn’t know for *sure* that Nigel Farage was the kind of man who brags about sexually harassing women, until he publicly stated that “It’s the kind of thing, if we are being honest, that men do. They sit around and have a drink and they talk like this”. But while it’s nice of Farage to publicly admit this so women know to avoid being in his presence, if you’d asked me before that how much I’d bet that it was the kind of thing he’d do, I’d have happily put my house, my record collection, my bank account, my overdraft, my dog, and at least three limbs on it.

None of this was at all surprising. Sociopaths gonna sociopath, and RWAs gonna RWA. We all know what vicious, narcissistic, racist, misogynists behave like.

Which brings me to my actual point — there are a lot of men reacting to those reactions, saying “men don’t talk like that! I’ve never heard anything like that!”

Yes they do, and yes you have.

No, #notallmen. But enough men. Something like six percent of men have committed rape (It’s difficult to know exactly, because obviously rapists have a tendency not to admit their crime if it might result in punishment). Somewhere between five and ten percent of men fall into the overlap of the right-wing authoritarian (not actually to do with politics) and social dominance orientations.

(From the abstract of the research I took that figure from:

these dominating authoritarians are among the most prejudiced persons in society. Furthermore, they seem to combine the worst elements of each kind of personality, being power-hungry, unsupportive of equality, manipulative, and amoral, as social dominators are in general, while also being religiously ethnocentric and dogmatic, as right-wing authoritarians tend to be. The author suggested that, although they are small in number, such persons can have considerable impact on society because they are well-positioned to become the leaders of prejudiced right-wing political movements.

I really must write about Altermeyer’s research sometime — but I think that adequately describes the Trump/Farage type…)

So, take the low end of that, and say five percent of men say that kind of thing. About five to ten percent are the kind of man to say it whether they do or not, about six percent are the kind to do it, whether they admit it or not, we don’t know what the overlap is, though I suspect it’s a lot. But either way, about one in twenty men will say that kind of thing.

That’s not all men, by any means. But nor is it such a low proportion that we can say “that’s not how men behave”. There’s about a one in twenty chance that any man picked at random behaves exactly like that. (Did someone say something about Skittles?)

Rather than wail about how the majority of men aren’t like that, we should be taking responsibility for stopping the millions who are.

As for “I’ve never heard men talk like that”… I have. A lot. I don’t go into locker rooms, but I have spent a lot of time in spaces that are all male and… literally in the middle of typing this sentence, my friend Matthew Rossi tweeted “Growing up, I hated being male because there was always someone like Trump in every group of boys/men I was in, no escape from it.”

Exactly. I try to avoid men like that, but I’ve been in situations where that was impossible. I’ve heard the same kind of things said. Not often, by any means. But more often than I’d like.

Saying “that’s not something I’ve ever heard” is just another form of rape culture. It’s saying that Trump is some monstrous freak of nature totally unlike the rest of humanity, and so we don’t have to do something about the problem he represents.

No. Trump is, despite his own opinion of himself, nothing special. I’ve met a dozen of him, at least — and I’m someone who does everything he can to avoid ever having any contact with people like that.

No, what Trump said isn’t “normal” or any of the other things his defenders have claimed. But it’s not uncommon either. It’s not normal to step in dogshit either — it’s not something that happens every day, every week, or even every year if you look where you’re going. But it does happen occasionally, and you don’t solve the problem and get the streets clean by pretending it’s never happened.

We live in a culture that rewards the Trumps and Farages of the world. We need to change that. It’s a problem that will require decades of work, if it can be fixed at all. And unless men recognise the scale of the problem (every woman I know is all too aware of it already) it won’t be. The least — the very least — we can do is say “yes, this happens, it’s horrible, what can I do to help?”

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New Patreon-Only Feature Starting Next Week — Weekly Comics Reviews

So, for the last few years I’ve not been very good at keeping up with the comics scene. I was always more a DC person than a Marvel one, and since DC’s godawful New 52 thing (which was five years ago now, shockingly. Time flies…) I slowly dropped pretty much all of their comics. That led to me going to the comic shop less, which led to me buying fewer comics… and I’ve also been less enthusiastic about the ones I have read. I’ve actually got piles of unread comics some of which date back *years* (I’ve read comics in that time, obviously, but I’ll think things like “I’ll read this Section 8 today, but put that decentish issue of Daredevil on the to-read-later pile”, and the pile grows…).
But I *want* to read more comics — and I am also very aware that at least some of the people who read my writing do so for the comics writing I do.
So as of next Wednesday, I’m going to solve that problem. Every Tuesday, I’m going to ask my Patreons to nominate up to three comics released the next day for me to buy, read, and review on the Wednesday. There will be conditions on this — no comics edited by Eddie Berganza, everything has to be available in print and at the comics shop I go to (no Comixology digital exclusives, as I don’t have a device that could read them and don’t support DRM. I *do* buy CBZ/CBR files, but I also want an excuse to go to the shop every week).
I’ll post reviews of those comics to Patreon on the Wednesday. They’ll be free bonuses for Patreon backers only. But on the other hand if I go to the comic shop every Wednesday, and buy and read comics every week like I used to, I’ll also be more likely to post about other comics here or on Mindless Ones, so non-backers will still get more Comix Content, as I’ll be back in the loop.
If you want to read those reviews, sign up as a Patreon backer. You pay per post, but can cap the monthly amount at as little as you want — you could theoretically pay one cent per post capped at one cent per month, though ideally you wouldn’t do that…

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On the Question of Infinity

Something a little different today. The politics news is a total horrorshow, but it’s the same horrorshow we’ve been seeing for months, so nothing new to say about that, and I haven’t quite finished the next Batpost or my post on Smile. So for now you’re getting a thought about infinity. This may be gibberish — I’m very, very, sick this week.

This was partly inspired by Plok, who in an email that started about a song we’re co-writing, but as is the way with him touched on a million other subjects, said:
“By the way, I really do believe that an system of infinite universes is an Aleph-1 thing? So what is the fucking point in giving them numbers, I ask you. I know no one cares about this, but it bugs me: the number-line simply ISN’T INFINITE ENOUGH to number all the worlds, and if I were Grant Morrison I would employ this fact in a big cosmic crossover story. Worlds unnumbered because they are un-numerable…all control is an illusion…”

And this got me thinking about how the concept of infinity is really the central unanswered question of our times, and how unsure we are of whether the concept even has a meaning. Because the question of whether it does or not should hold an importance equivalent to the question of whether God exists — and in fact the two may be different ways of phrasing the same question.

Because it is an open question as to whether the word “infinity” actually has a meaning at all. If the universe is of finite extent, and contains a finite number of discrete particles, then the word “infinity” is literally meaningless. There is a finite (though incomprehensibly large) number of ways in which that finite number of particles can be arranged. That means that there exists some number past which it is not, even in principle, possible to represent in the universe. A last meaningful number.

If that is the case, then it is literally meaningless to talk about “infinity”, or a number higher than that number. And most of what we know about low-level physics seems to suggest that — that reality is fundamentally granular, and that time, space, and matter come in lumps beyond which there is no “smaller”. If this is correct, then there are only a finite number of possible states of the universe, and thus only a finite number of numbers.

However, everything we know about large-scale physics suggest we live in a universe that is continuous, rather than discrete — an analogue, rather than a digital, universe (a “classical” rather than “quantum” universe, to use the terms physicists use). Such a universe makes infinity as a concept make sense.

One of the main tasks facing physicists is to resolve this, and to unify these two views to find what’s really there. It’s the consensus among physicists that when they do resolve the classical and quantum views of the universe, though, they will show that the quantum view is right.

But there’s a problem with that — because the maths that we use to figure out the laws of physics is the same maths that requires infinity in order to work. If the universe is finite, bounded, and granular, for example, the proof that there is no highest prime number is trivially false — if there’s a highest number, then the highest prime number must be less than or equal to that.

So there are three options, none of which are especially palatable. The first is that our physics is wrong. This doesn’t seem to be the case. The second is that our mathematics — including the mathematics we used to develop the physics — is wrong. If this is the case, then we need a very good explanation as to how this wrong mathematics manages to get us to the right answer when we use it in the real world.

The only other option is one that several mathematicians, and some theologians and philosophers, but no-one else, think might be the case — that maths is true, but not in this universe. In other words, there is some other, greater, universe outside the physical universe, which contains truths which are necessarily true, but which have no physical nature, and which we can access with our minds.

This, also, seems on the face of it to be not the most likely of options.

So either everything we know about the universe is wrong, or it’s right but we somehow got to the right answer using the wrong tools (tools which are the basis of things like the computer on which I’m typing this and the information network through which you’re reading it, somehow, despite being wrong), or we can magically know stuff that has no basis in physical reality but which is somehow true on some deeper level.

Of course, if infinity *is* a coherent concept, then that also leads to a whole lot of other, even more incomprehensible, conclusions of the kind that philosophers speculate about (for example that we’re probably computer simulations, or that we should all expect to find ourselves, though not anyone else we know, to be immortal). The point here is that there’s a major flaw in the most basic ways we understand the universe, and that it’s a flaw no-one seems to have the first idea how to begin addressing in a sensible way.

Anyway, that’s your blog post for today. This may not be the most coherent blog post you ever read — as I said, I’m extremely ill at the moment — but its incoherence at least has the advantage of being about something that is a genuine mystery, and a genuinely confusing problem. Which puts it ahead of all the political incoherence in the world at the moment, which seems to boil down to “should [the US/the UK/Hungary/name your country]” utterly destroy itself in order to hurt foreign people because stupid, angry, people want that?”

The answer to that one seems pretty obvious to me, even in this state.

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Yet Another Rant About Class From Me

Because you’ve not had enough of those, recently, right?
We’ve been hearing a lot from the right wing of the Labour party recently about how “we must listen to the legitimate concerns of the white working class”, and so on. Of course one of the reasons they have to listen is because there’s now a “we” and “them”, because the institutions that used to allow working class people* to become MPs have been eroded, in large part by the right wing of the Labour party, but let’s pass that by.

(*Well, accurately, working-class *men*. Not all the changes of the last few decades have been negative).

Of course, this “listening to the legitimate concerns” only applies when those legitimate concerns are people being “legitimately concerned” that black people live in their area, and not to people being legitimately concerned that their house has been destroyed in flooding caused by climate change, or that their children who joined the army because it was the only steady job they could get have been shipped off to fight in unending wars with Middle Eastern countries. Those aren’t legitimate concerns, that’s people being unrealistic and not understanding the big picture. But we have to listen to the *racist* legitimate concerns. Rachel Reeves doing an Enoch Powell tribute act, but without Powell’s oratorical skill or genuine conviction, is what the working classes want. Obviously.

Or rather “we” (I’m not one of the “we” and never will be…) have to listen to the concerns we’ve made up. Out of our heads.

Take for example Jolyon Green, the former head of press for the Labour party, who tweeted yesterday:
You’re a G4S security guard working nights for 18k a year. Labour leadership think your firm is a “war criminal”. Why would you vote Labour?

Now, I’ve never worked that particular job. But I’ve worked jobs as hard, and for less money. And I’ve worked for companies that are at least as horrible as G4S. (Mr Green, of course, has literally never had a job that wasn’t in politics or the media, but of course his two years as the producer of The Sunday Programme for GMTV, or his time as the head of the Labour Party’s media monitoring unit make him uniquely qualified to opine on the travails of low-paid manual workers).

And you know what? If, when I’d been in those jobs, I’d heard the Labour party saying the companies I was working for should be prosecuted (and some of them should — I worked for several months in a call centre for a telecoms company that routinely defrauded its customers, for example), I’d have been delighted.

When you’re working for a company that docks your wages if you’re literally a second late, that makes you get permission for toilet breaks and times them (or doesn’t let you take toilet breaks at all), that makes you work unpaid overtime, or all the other normal humiliations and injustices that are heaped upon everyone working on low wages (I don’t know if any or all of these are normal practice for G4S, but they’re standard in so many jobs I can’t imagine they’re not), then you’re not going to think of your employer as “your firm”, but as the bosses. What you’ll feel isn’t loyalty but resentment.

It’s possible to feel loyalty if you’re working for an organisation that treats you well. I’ve worked in well-paid jobs where I was allowed a large amount of latitude in my work, where turning up twenty minutes late because you got stuck in traffic was just something that happened, rather than a cause for a written warning and disciplinary measures. You don’t resent your employers the same way in that situation. I imagine that Green, who has worked his entire life in jobs like that — and almost all of it in politics, where your work actually matters, and is for a cause you believe in — identifies a great deal with his employers.
He might well feel upset when people call his former bosses war criminals. He might even imagine that someone working for G4S at minimum wage might feel the same way.

But I doubt they would. I suspect — though as I say I’ve never done the job myself (members of my family have, and hated it) — that working for G4S isn’t like being in charge of Labour’s media strategy. I suspect it’s more similar to the job I had where I had to spend all day every day typing customer numbers into a computer for minimum wage, and where each customer number I typed in would mean a customer being referred to a debt collection agency. A debt collection agency of precisely the type that was threatening me at the same time.
(I only did that particular job for a couple of months, because I couldn’t morally justify it. I only did it at all because my wife’s immigration status meant we couldn’t claim any benefits at all, so I literally had to do it or starve. That I did it even under those conditions, though, still haunts me more than a decade on, and contributes significantly to my self-loathing. I was forced by hunger into complicity with evil, but I was still complicit. Anyway…)

And this is something that a lot of our political classes — on all sides — can’t really understand. They can’t grasp, truly, that a job can be something you hate, how you can resent having to do something horrible just in order to survive.

I mean, just look at the structure of that tweet. You’re doing an unpleasant job for which you’re underpaid. Labour say your employers are bad. Why would you vote Labour? — that’s a question you can only ask if the idea of doing an unpleasant job or being underpaid is something purely hypothetical to you. And yet at the same time it’s trying to use the imagined concerns of this hypothetical working class person as a moral shield against all criticism. How *dare* you criticise that massive multinational? Don’t you know they’re the *employer* of many *working class people*? If you criticise the bosses, you’re criticising the workers, and you mustn’t do that. After all, the workers have legitimate complaints.

It’s an absolutely ludicrous way of thinking, and yet to a greater or lesser extent it’s endemic.

The specific people I’ve mentioned here are Labour “moderates”, and the authoritarian wing of Labour seems to be the *most* guilty of this particular kind of thinking right now, but it’s there in all parties, and in all wings of all parties, to an extent. It’s a problem that’s developed in the last couple of decades, thanks to the development of a specific political class.

Perhaps instead of the professional political classes talking about “listening to the working classes’ legitimate concerns”, and then making up stuff out of their heads… perhaps, just perhaps, we could try to create a system that actually allows working class people to *become* politicians? A system that doesn’t involve Oxford PPE graduates “listening to” working class people and then speaking for them, but that amplifies their voices and cuts out the middleman?

Nah. Never happen. It’s not a legitimate concern.

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