If you can force people to accept as reality something that is demonstrably false, you prove to both of you that they are the ones in charge and you will submit. That’s why it’s so darned important to Trump to be right about everything, so important that he’ll alter a weather chart with a Sharpie.
So how do we figure out what’s real?
Back in September I had what I’ve jokingly described as “a brush with the law.”
It’s not what you think. I was called to give a deposition in a lawsuit in the course of my day job. It involved me spending a whole day in a conference room of a fancy New York law firm, answering questions from an attorney sitting across the table from me. There was a microphone clipped to my shirt, a video camera trained on me the whole time, and a court reporter doing a live transcription. It was not fun.
I can’t say anything about the content of the deposition, but the emotional experience was profoundly unsettling. It gave me a visceral understanding that the legal system is not there to determine “the truth.” It’s there to ensure that two sides get an equal opportunity to discover and present their own version of events.
“It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove“ is a cliché of crime fiction. When you believe there’s such a thing as objective reality, this doesn’t seem right and fair. It certainly didn’t make me happy. Normally I enjoy spending time in New York. This time, I couldn’t wait to leave.
A few weeks later, I started the first term of a part-time distance learning Master’s course in Organizational Psychology at University of London. I can do the course over five years, so I’m being sensible, taking it easy, and only doing one module per term. This was a good move because the module for this first term is Research Methods, and it’s hard.
And the subject of truth came up again. In the first two weeks we studied epistemology, ontology and the philosophy of science: how do we know what we know? How can we be sure that we know is true? Is there even such a thing as objective knowledge, or is the whole edifice of science a convenient construct that could just as easily be formulated and interpreted in a thousand completely different ways?
I’m a hard science boy. I did maths & physics as an undergrad, and I’m pretty solid on the idea that there is an objective reality, and we just live in it. Physics has a habit of being measurable and immovable. When there’s a discrepancy, it’s theory that’s wrong, not the universe.
Buuuut…in the context of social sciences and psychology, we’re not dealing with particles and forces and fields. We’re dealing with dynamical systems on top of dynamical systems. If someone says that they see the dress as white and gold, when actually it’s black and blue, their perceptions are objectively false. But the statement that the person perceives the dress as white and gold is objectively true. Now think about phenomena that can’t be measured by spectrometers, such as self-image or emotional resilience.
Epistemologically speaking, I’ve been coming to terms with the idea that qualitative research can be rigorous, “hard”, and meaningful just like quantitative research. Is it true? That might be asking the wrong question. Does it matter? The way I’ve got it in my head right now is that qualitative research tends to be broadening: improving our understanding of and empathy for others by gaining insight into their lived and shared experiences.
(Even in the last few weeks of studying quantitative methods, we still have to deal with questions of ontology. Sure, we have scales for measuring “intelligence.” But is this even a valid construct in the first place?)
Yesterday, feeling better than I had been all week, Abi and drove to Castricum beach to watch the sunset, get some sea air, and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of apple pie at one of the beach cafés. In the light of the Trump impeachment hearings in the US this week, and the general election campaign in the UK, I got on a ramble about how modern media, by attempting to be impartial and “fair to both sides” allows lies to run rampant. How the idea that there are always two sides, and it’s up to the reader or viewer to decide, is in itself a libertarian free-market stance. And we’re back to the nature of truth again.
When we got home, I read Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), printed in The Guardian. He talks about exactly this, with specific reference to the gatekeepers of modern popular knowledge – social media and search engines:
On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.
To quote Edward R Murrow, one “cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument”. We have millions of pieces of evidence for the Holocaust – it is an historical fact. And denying it is not some random opinion. Those who deny the Holocaust aim to encourage another one.
Still, Zuckerberg says that “people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.” But at a time when two-thirds of millennials say they haven’t even heard of Auschwitz, how are they supposed to know what’s “credible”? How are they supposed to know that the lie is a lie?
There is such a thing as objective truth. Facts do exist. And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.
I’ve long turned away from web-scale social media myself, because I’ve found it incompatible with maintaining my own mental health. The only person I’m helping with this stance is myself. Truth is very important to me, but I’m not 100% sure what it is any more. And I don’t know what I, as an individual, can do to promote it.
Emma Brockes in The Guardian – “Forget Bali, I found bliss in the blandness of a chain hotel”
On the second day, after my meetings, I went down to the hotel lobby. The sliding doors opened and the chill air contracted in the dank Florida day. I did some laps of the car park, talking on the phone to friends, then went inside and ate wings. Back in the room, I lay on the bed, looking through the sliding glass doors towards the highway. I thought about sending an email and didn’t. I took a three-hour nap, went downstairs and ordered more wings. No one spoke to me, looked at me or confirmed I existed.
I recognize that feeling from the time last year when my Friday evening flight home was cancelled, and EasyJet put me up in various hotels until they could fly me home again on the Monday evening. I wasn’t in a good headspace at the time, but I look back now on those three days as a break of almost unprecedented rest and tranquillity.
They sleep a lot.
So when my cough didn’t go away or improve at all after a couple of weeks, I went back to see my doctor, and almost collapsed in a coughing fit at his feet. “Ohhhh,” he said. “I recognize that. You’ve got whooping cough.” Huh.
Because I’d been suffering for a few weeks already, I was beyond the point where antibiotics would have made a difference, and also beyond the main point of contagion (good). My doctor ordered some blood tests and a chest X-ray to rule out further infections (they were clear), but the prognosis and his recommended treatment was the same as for bronchitis: rest, plenty of fluids, paracetamol and/or ibuprofen for any fever or pain.
I held off on travelling for a few weeks, but figured I was “well enough” to go back over to Edinburgh for a few days at the beginning of November. This was a mistake. I was still having coughing fits where something (a tickle in my throat, a laugh, a deep breath) would trigger me and I’d spend the next thirty seconds evacuating my lungs and gasping for air while my ears rang and my vision closed in from lack of oxygen. I tried to be unobtrusive about it, but my colleagues picked up on it anyway. Slack channels started featuring subtle messages of gentle concern like, “will people who are sick please go home and not infect the rest of us.”
On the Thursday afternoon I pulled a muscle in my belly during one fit, and found it painful to breathe and move for the rest of the day. That was the last straw. Rather than struggling through Friday like I had something to prove, I headed out to the airport in the morning to get the early flight home…only to find out it was full and I couldn’t get a seat. This is where a lounge pass comes in handy.
“But I’m a knowledge worker!” I kept thinking. I just sit in a chair all day and type and talk to people on video calls. It’s not like I’m lifting bricks or climbing scaffolding. Turns out there’s a link between mind and body, though. And when I’m coughing so hard that I’m pulling muscles in my neck, back, belly, and chest (and once even in my eye), even sitting upright a nicely ergonomic chair all day long isn’t quite the medical definition of “rest”.
So I’ve taken some more time off work, and I think it’s working. I woke up yesterday morning not feeling like my lungs were about to ambush me. I’m still coughing hard, and I still ache all over with sore muscles, but I haven’t any uncontrollable fits for a few days now. My resting heart rate is down by 10% from a peak in October. It feels like I’m in control of the cough now, rather than it being in control of me.
- 💩 Olympus Has Fallen Die Hard in the White House, but with no sense of humour.
- 💩 London Has Fallen The producers abandoned movie-making for this sequel in favour of videogames. It’s basically a tactical shooter, split between cut-scenes, elaborately staged quick time events, and run-and-gun sequences. Watch it with a game controller in your hands!
- ⭐ Mindhorn Comedy about a washed-up actor who played the TV show detective Mindhorn in the 1980s, who gets involved in a real case when a deluded criminal thinks it was all real. Given the premise, I was surprised and impressed by how deftly this came off. The film doesn’t rely on slapstick and cringe-worthy moments, and is much more subtle and in the end much more empathic than I’d anticipated.
- I, Tonya Strong script! Weak special effects. The face replacement they did for the skating scenes was really bad. Didn’t even make it all the way down into the uncanny valley.
- ⭐ Parker For all the detective fiction I’ve read, I’ve never read any of Richard Stark’s Parker series, so I went into this film without any preconceptions about the protagonist. I just wanted to watch some Jason Statham. And it was really good! Where’s the sequel?
- Ad Astra Grrr. Such mixed feelings about this. Lovingly filmed; moody, mysterious, seat-grippingly exciting in parts… But every fantastically realistic element (the washed out colours and stark atmosphere-free shadows on the moon) was let down by an equal and opposite and element of physical implausibility (Earth gravity on the moon when they’re not involved in a vehicle chase). The filmmakers set themselves such high standards that I can’t forgive them their failures.
- The Laundromat Steven Soderbergh’s stab at the Panama Papers. Ends with a fabulous single-take Meryl Streep monologue, but the rest of the film is more of a series of (amusing) vignettes than a coherent story. Alex Winters’ The Panama Papers is a better film (documentary) about the journalists who revealed the story. I’m looking for a better documentary about the underlying fraud.
- ⭐ Zombieland Fun zom-com.
- Terminator: Dark Fate I thought this was a lot better than people gave it credit for. It’s not a great film – but what it sets out to do, it achieves. T2 took the hunt & chase elements from the original, and added a time-bending element that allowed the humans a chance to strike back. Dark Fate goes back to a simple hunt & chase. The victory condition is nothing more than escape and survive. The action sequences are amazing, and it’s great to pick up with Sarah Connor again. Ultimately it’s “just” a good action movie, though.
- ⭐ Maleficent Excellent, sweet fairy tale retelling.
- 💩💩 Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Way more murder, genocide, and holocaust imagery than you expect to see in an all-ages Disney fairytale film. (There’s a literal gas chamber sequence.) And some of those scenes showing the brutality and horror of war are genuinely weighty and impactful. What kills the film stone dead, though, is how little it cares about about the consequences of its own actions. Moments after the humans fall short of brutally wiping out their neighbours, everyone is holding hands and singing songs. It’s shockingly ugly, reeking of whitewashing propaganda to deny the events that just occurred under everyone’s noses. Or is that the real message of this film? Fiona and I saw this at the cinema, and I walked out feeling legit shook.
- Breaking Bad seasons 3-5 Finally caught up on this! It’s really good.
- Better Call Saul seasons 1-4 Enjoying this as well. Masterful manipulation of sympathies. Everyone is compromised.
I’ve been sick with my old nemesis, bronchitis, for the last week or so. I went to the doctor the other day to get a salbutamol inhaler, which is helping, but recovery is slow. Feeling my age. Being 32 sucks.
It it looks like I’ve spent a lot of time watching TV and films between now and the last Mixed Media post, chalk it up to a lot of travel time in September (New York, London, Edinburgh), and most of October so far lying in bed with barely enough breath to flick through Netflix for anything better.
- Black Mass Dull film about horrible people doing horrible crimes
- ⭐ The Panama Papers Fascinating documentary directed by Alex Winters (yes, he of Bill & Ted fame)
- Hellboy (2019) Entirely forgettable
- ⭐ Crazy Rich Asians Fun romantic comedy!
- ⭐ The Informant! Quirky true-story comedy drama about deception heaped upon incompetence.
- 💩The Hummingbird Project Seeing the trailer, I’d thought this was going to be quirky like The Informant!, but based on the world of high-frequency trading infrastructure Michael Lewis described in Flash Boys. It could have been, if they’d remembered to shoot the third act. Instead, the film just cuts off mid-way through some pointless scene in a barn. And the only really sequence of real wit is the one where Anton Zaleski (Alexander Skarsgård) dances down a hotel hallway to the Beastie Boys’ Do It in his dressing gown. Other than that: great cast, wasted.
- Bad Times At The El Royale Style over substance, with a weird religious redemption message at the end
- ⭐ Dora The Explorer Surprisingly good! Okay, it’s not going to win any Oscars, but it was good clean fun, with a lot of knowing winks to the parents and older kids in the audience.
- ⭐ Brawl In Cell Block 99 I didn’t buy Vince Vaughn as a mobster in season 2 of True Detective, but he shines here as a weary but hard-as-nails force of nature. The violence in this film is viscerally brutal, and not for the faint-hearted.
- ⭐ Dragged Across Concrete Similar in tone to Brawl, S. Craig Zahler seems to have a very distinct feel for his films. Very deliberate. He likes to take his time with each scene, and lets you soak in the inevitability of the horrible situations into which he puts his characters. Gripping, but fatalistic.
- ⭐ The Equalizer I remember watching the Equalizer TV show when I was younger. I thought I remembered that the Robert McCall character (then played by Edward Woodward) had a gimmick that he didn’t like to use guns, and so relied on his wits and other weapons. Doing some cursory internet “reasearch” shows that not to be the case, so, eh. In any case, the new Robert McCall played by Denzel Washington doesn’t use guns (in this first film), unless you count nail guns. It’s a solid reluctant hero action thriller.
- In The Shadow Of The Moon I went into this looking for a serial killer crime thriller, but turns out to be a time travel serial killer crime thriller. I’ll allow it.
- The Equalizer 2 Not as good as the first. Shouldn’t have killed Melissa Leo’s “control” character!
- K-12 Long music video promo thing (“emotion picture“?) Good music & choreography, terrible connecting storyline, dialogue, and acting.
- ⭐ The Great Wall Also surprisingly good! Amazing visuals and action sequences. The dialogue and themes (collectivism) feels like they came from a different (Chinese) film-making tradition, but I’m down with that.
- The Losers Have I seen this film before? I’m sure I’ve seen this film before. I didn’t have a sense of full-blown déja vu throughout it, just an overwhelming sense of familiarity. Chris Evans (after Fantastic Four and the underrated Push, but before Captain America) in his pink T-shirt, playing both with and against his tough hero type. Zoe Saldana playing the Zoe Saldana character. The comic book graphics of the title and credit sequences… I’m sure I’ve seen this before. Maybe I’ll see it again in another 10 years and ask myself the same question.
- Escape plan 2 Sure
- Escape plan 3 Okay
- 💩 The Other Guys There’s actually a good comedy in here, but it’s obliterated by the weight of misogynistic and homophobic jokes. Has not aged well since 2010.
- 💩 Law Abiding Citizen Violent sociopath goes on a killing spree to avenge the death of his family.
- 💩 Taken 2 Violent sociopath goes on a killing spree to avenge the death of his family.
- 💩 Taken 3 Violent sociopath goes on a killing spree to avenge the death of his family. Don’t judge me, I was sick.
- Bastille Day Idris Elba
- Close Bodyguard thriller with all-female leads. Felt cheap, somehow. Might have just been the acting.
- Triple Frontier Modern parable about the evil of greed and the dangers of sunk-cost reasoning.
Overall Pedro Pascal Moustache rating: 2 out of 3. (The Great Wall and Triple Frontier, but not The Equalizer 2)
- Dark season 1: German mystery series, involving serial killer(s), broken families, and time travel. With some teen characters. Felt a little Stranger-Things-ish at the beginning, but takes its sense of dread in a whole different direction. A bit slow and heavy-handed, and too many characters to keep track of in the various timelines. But good! Do not watch the dubbed version. Use subtitles like a normal human being.
- ⭐ True Detective season 3: And boom, it’s back. Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff have a great dynamic together. The pattern of following the same characters through the ages probably doesn’t need a third outing, though. Just imagine season 2 doesn’t exist, and everything’s fine.
- ⭐ Mindhunter season 2: Where Season 1 belonged to Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), the emotional centre of season 2 is Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). It’s very good, but some of the plot threads felt out of balance. Wendy Carr’s storyline peters out part-way through the season, and doesn’t feature in the last episodes at all. As does whatsisname Gregg who stays back at the basement. I suppose they wanted to stick close to the real-life events of the Atlanta child murders maybe?
- Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D season 5: Not their best season, but I liked it just fine.
- ⭐ Criminal: United Kingdom: A tight little police procedural drama – the gimmick being that the whole thing is set in a single location: an interrogation in a police station “somewhere”, the observation room next door, and the hallway outside them. Three short stand-alone episodes, each covering a different crime, linked by some lightweight drama between the police characters. A nice set-up, good for quick snacking. They re-used the same set for a Spanish, German, and French version as well – I’ll be watching them soon.
- Principles of Applied Research Methods – Jackson, McDowall, Mackenzie-Davey, Whiting (eds). Now I know what “epistemology” means.