The Samovar

… and just so you know I’m serious
April 18, 2007, 12:24 am
Filed under: Books, Neuroscience

Hmm, it strikes me that three posts in one night (and at least four in a row) about food suggest I’m a rather frivolous person. Well, hey! I’ve been on holiday for a week. What can I say? Anyway, in partial mitigation of my consumption-related posting:


I have a plan, and that plan is to read a book by every Nobel prize for literature winning author. (Well not the poetry. I can’t hack poetry for some reason.) So… opinions? Pointless exercise or not? Any of them I should particularly prioritise or avoid? Will I even be able to get copies of books by all of them? Some of them seem pretty obscure.

So far, I’ve only read 16 of them. How many have you read? (This could be a meme, but this is a very serious post, so let’s not make it one.)


Before I wrote these entries I read this paper:

The timing of action potentials in sensory neurons contains substantial information about the eliciting stimuli. Although the computational advantages of spike timing–based neuronal codes have long been recognized, it is unclear whether, and if so how, neurons can learn to read out such representations. We propose a new, biologically plausible supervised synaptic learning rule that enables neurons to efficiently learn a broad range of decision rules, even when information is embedded in the spatiotemporal structure of spike patterns rather than in mean firing rates. The number of categorizations of random spatiotemporal patterns that a neuron can implement is several times larger than the number of its synapses. The underlying nonlinear temporal computation allows neurons to access information beyond single-neuron statistics and to discriminate between inputs on the basis of multineuronal spike statistics. Our work demonstrates the high capacity of neural systems to learn to decode information embedded in distributed patterns of spike synchrony.

Good stuff.

Zola’s “Truth”: Dreyfus and the ‘war on terror’
November 14, 2006, 4:37 am
Filed under: Activism, Books, Civil Liberties, Politics, Religion, Terrorism

I have just recently finished Zola’s last novel “Truth” (1902). Although it is not one of his greatest works, reading it was quite an experience and still has significant lessons for people involved in progressive politics today.

To give some background, “Truth” is a fictional reworking of the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906), which Zola was heavily involved in. The circumstances are slightly different. It deals with a Jewish schoolteacher, wrongly accused of the rape and murder of a child, rather than Dreyfus, who was an artillery officer wrongly accused of spying for Germany. The ‘enemy’ is the Catholic Church rather than the army. Other than that, the story of the novel quite closely matches the real life events of the Dreyfus affair.

As the title suggests, the main theme of the book is the battle between the progressive forces of reason and truth, against reactionary political forces and vested interests. This battle continues today, which is what gives the book its contemporary relevance. The targets are different, but the battle is the same.

In the book, and in the Dreyfus affair, the strongest reactionary force was the anti-semitic press. Without the pressure it exerted, neither Simon (the wrongly accused schoolteacher in the book), nor Dreyfus would have been found guilty. Today the press is not anti-Semitic, but I would argue that the levels of anti-Muslim feeling expressed are comparable if not equivalent. Then, the press openly accused Jews of needing the blood of young children for their rituals. Nowadays, I don’t think you could get away with anything quite so outright absurd (although I could well be proved wrong), but we have the phenomenon of newspapers telling us that Islam encourages people to martyr themselves and that they will receive 72 virgins in heaven as their reward.

In the book, there are many vested interests and the complex and highly political plot revolves around their underhand dealings. Chief among them is the Catholic Church. The real criminal in the book is a teacher and Brother at the Catholic school, and the Church does everything it can to cover this up from the very first moment. It perhaps won’t come as a surprise that over a hundred years ago, as today, the Catholic Church was involved in committing and covering up child abuse. In the Dreyfus affair, the chief vested interest was the army. In both cases, it became clear relatively early who the real culprit was to all who knew the facts. Today, it is not clear who is the biggest vested interest in the ‘war on terror’. Certainly, there are many who are profiting by it: the oil companies, the ‘defence’ contractors, the firms who build and maintain our surveillance state, and, of course, the politicians and bureaucrats.

In the book and in the Dreyfus affair, it was critically important that the trial was not conducted publicly. In the book, it is decided that the evidence (relating to the rape and murder of a child) is too shocking for the public to hear and so the trial is heard in secret. In the Dreyfus affair, it was considered that it could not be public because the nature of the evidence would put national interests at threat. Today, the government argues that terrorism trials should be conducted in secret for precisely the same reason, and so an examination of how this led to such a perversion of justice in the Dreyfus affair is timely.

Essentially the only piece of evidence against Dreyfus was a document (the bordereau) which was written in a hand which had a resemblance to Dreyfus’ handwriting (the same thing happens in the book). At the trial (a court martial which the public could not attend), an ‘expert graphologist’ attested that the handwriting was the same. It turned out that the first graphologist the army had consulted had said that it was very unlikely to be the same. Part of what later swung public opinion in Dreyfus’ favour was when the letter was published and various people recognised it as belonging to the actual culprit and came forward. Because the trial was not public, this absurd piece of evidence was allowed to decide Dreyfus’ fate. Furthermore, a ‘secret dossier’ of information was provided to the judges and not made available to Dreyfus’ defence. Again, the government today argues that the threat of terrorism justifies this measure.

As I said, the story of the book is the battle of reason and truth against the reactionary forces and vested interests of the day. It is interesting to consider how well this battle is going today. The following passage suggests the level of ignorance of the day, and as the translator notes, it is based on newspaper reports of the time.

He launched an extraordinary financial affair with mortgage bonds on Paradise, each bond being of five francs value. The district was flooded with circulars and prospectuses explaining the working of those investments in celestial felicity. With each bond there were ten coupons of half a franc, representing good works, prayers, and masses payable as interest on earth, and redeemable in heaven at the office of the miracle-working St. Antony. Premiums were also offered in order to attract subscribers. Twenty bonds gave a right to a coloured statuette of the saint, and a hundred insured an annual mass for the holder’s especial benefit. Finally, said the prospectus, the name of St. Antony’s Bonds was given to this scrip, because it was the saint who would redeem it a hundredfold in the next world. And the announcement ended with these words: ‘Such supernatural guarantees make these bonds absolutely safe. No financial catastrophe can threaten them. Even the destruction of the world, at the end of time, would leave them in force, or rather would at once place the holders in the enjoyment of the full capitalised interest.’

This passage is interesting for a variety of reasons. Personally, I found it surprising that as recently as the late 19th century the Church would indulge in this sort of thing (which I believed had died out after the doctrine of indulgences led to the creation of Protestantism in the 16th century). It is also interesting how far some have come since those days, and that many have not (think of all the cults’ and mystics’ promises).

In the book reason progresses and ultimately triumphs through the efforts of the primary school teachers. Zola’s theory (and I think it is still a good one), was that if you could instil children with a love of truth, and a familiarity with reason, this would eventually solve all of society’s problems. In the main part of the book, progress is incredibly slow and by no means certain. After a generation of the main character Marc’s efforts, the now grown-up children have progressed from believing everything that is said about the Jewish schoolteacher Simon, to believing that the evidence is probably not good enough to convict but that it isn’t their concern. Zola rather ruins the book with the final few chapters in which truth and reason suddenly progress by enormous leaps and bounds, resulting in a sort of Utopia. If you read the book, I advise you to skip these chapters.

I think it is interesting to compare this theory of social progress with more recent socialist ideas of ‘consciousness raising’ and with the ideas of revolutionary change. It is a long term vision, and says that we cannot achieve great changes in the structure of society unless the propensities of the population reflect the change in the structure. It is not possible, in this theory, to have a just and liberal society if the people of that society do not respect the ideas of justice and freedom. Therefore, in this view, our first task must be education. In the Utopian chapters of his book, the head of the teacher training college says the following, which might well be heeded today:

One thing which delights me, and which you have not mentioned, is that nowadays students are recruited much more easily for the training colleges. What made me most anxious in former times was the distrust, the contempt into which the teaching profession had fallen, ill-paid, unhonoured as it was. But since the salaries have been increased, now that real honour attaches to the humblest members of the profession, candidates arrive from all quarters, so that one is able to pick and choose, and form an excellent staff.

It is a difficult theory to believe in as a social activist, because it is very likely that little to no visible change will be observed in our lifetimes if we follow it. With the time-limited dangers of climate change, it may no longer be a sustainable model for progress. That said, if you want to show your support for this theory at the next demonstration you go to, this is its chant:

What do we want?

Gradual progress!

When do we want it?

In due course!

Another theme in the battle for reason and truth in the book is the disproportionate effort that needs to be made by those on the side of truth. It only takes very weak evidence to persuade someone of something they wish to believe, but it takes overwhelming evidence to convince someone of the opposite. One of the tactics of the Church and the press in the book is to repeatedly make known new pieces of very weak evidence against Simon (in many cases entirely fabricated). The evidence is unconvincing, and in each case is eventually shown to be wrong, but that is almost beside the point. The point is that these tiny pieces of evidence can be clung on to by those who want to believe he is guilty.

The same tactic is noticeable today. The recent case of the Lancet report on the number of excess deaths caused by the war on Iraq is a case in point. Critics of the report need only highlight some minor error or apparent error and they then feel justified in writing off the entire thing. This has been described by Daniel Davies as the “Devastating Critique“. Those who argue for the rational methods of the study have to work enormously hard to show that each bad criticism is invalid, but the critics can lazily produce some new supposed error with very little work. The Deltoid blog has been engaged in this war for a long time now. Although this is fine and important work, I feel that it might be sapping the energy of the supporters of reason, and doing little to further the cause. It would be interesting to think about this point in relation to the long running battle to show that cigarettes cause cancer, and the current one to show that the dangers of climate change are real.

Politically, this book is very interesting and on the whole it takes the right attitude. There is one awful theme that runs through it though: sexism. As well as the political battles, there is a personal one. Marc has to deal with his wife Genevieve who becomes enthralled by religion. Zola paints this as reason versus religion, with man as reason and woman as religion. It’s a neat trick to tie the personal story of the novel with its political theme, but it is absolutely indefensible. This, and the awful last few Utopian chapters, are the major faults of the book. Other than that, all I would say against it is that it is a little slow in parts. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in politics and political change. The book, and the history of the Dreyfus affair, have much to tell us today.