Saturday 31 August 2019

Jazz standard: “In a Sentimental Mood”

“In a Sentimental Mood” as performed by Duke Ellington (its composer) and John Coltrane is one of my favourite pieces in jazz. It’s tender, melancholic, and just wonderful.

Ellington and Coltrane are 2 of the greatest figures in jazz, and we also have Elvin Jones on drums. I’m a peasant, but even I can hear that the drums are great.
Here is the song with lyrics, performed by Ella Fitzgerald.

Much as I love her silky voice, nothing beats the John Coltrane version.
Today, I’ve just heard for the 1st time the original, performed by Duke Ellington and the orchestra. Here it is, if you haven’t heard it.

I mean, what happened? How is this the same one?

Emma Bovary’s boredom

Look at these lines—Flaubert describes the people at the Marquis’s party that Emma Bovary looks at: 
“Their clothes, of better cut, seemed to be of softer material, and their hair, gathered in curls at their temples, had the sheen of finest pomade. Their complexion was that of wealth, the shade of white that enhances the pallor of porcelain, the watered shimmer of satin, the shine of beautiful furniture, maintained in the peak of health by a simple and exquisite diet.” (P.1, Ch.8) 
It has been quite some time since I read a Flaubert novel, I forgot how rich, how thick with details Madame Bovary was. He doesn’t describe everything a character does, the way Tolstoy would, but like Tolstoy, he describes everything there is to see in a scene. But this is not a neutral, objective description, it is description of the rich people through Emma’s eyes. 
Madame Bovary is about boredom, but it’s never boring. I love the metaphors and similes. 
“... deep down she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, her desperate eyes stared out across the isolation of her life, searching for a white sail in the mist on the distant horizon. She didn’t know what this stroke of fate would be, which wind would blow it towards her, what shore it would carry her to, whether it would be a rowing boat or an ocean-going ship, filled with worries or enough bliss to make it sink. But each morning when she woke up she hoped it would be that day, and would listen to every sound, leap out of bed, be amazed that it hadn’t come, and then at sunset, unhappier than ever, she would wish it were tomorrow.” (P.1, Ch.9) 
Isn’t that such a wonderful passage to describe boredom? 
“But nothing ever happened to her: it was God’s will! Her future was a long dark corridor, and the door at the end was locked.” (ibid.) 
And then this bit: 
“But it was at mealtimes particularly that she thought she couldn’t bear it any longer, in the little dining room on the ground floor with its smoky stove, squeaky door, walls that streamed with damp, its dank flagstones; all life’s bitterness seemed to be heaped on her plate, and along with the stream from the boiled beef it rose from the depths of her being like so many other insipid odours.” (ibid.) 
Now and then I can understand. I know boredom—when we moved to Norway, it was Kristiansand that we first lived in, for some time, so imagine moving from Saigon to Kristiansand. The quiet and uneventfulness could have driven me mad if not for the IB. Being busy helps. Still, we moved to Oslo after a few years. 
But Madame Bovary is not only about boredom. As I reread the novel, it’s amusing to think about the readers who see Emma as a heroine who is stifled by marriage and constrained by the patriarchy and defies social conventions and breaks free by having affairs. It is obvious from the start that she is doomed and would cause her own downfall. Her main fault is that she identifies with characters in books and expects life to be like books—she wants luxury and romance, she wants something grand, romantic, and tragic, she is sentimental and needs something to fill the hollowness of her own soul. In a sense, Madame Bovary is a book about a bad reader, and the book itself becomes a test for readers. 

About 2 years and a half ago, I read Effi Briest. These were my blog posts comparing the 3 adultery novels:

Thursday 29 August 2019

Rereading Madame Bovary: 1st notes

I’m rereading Madame Bovary after 6-7 years. The translation is by Christopher Moncrieff. This is a read-along, everyone is welcomed to join and discuss the novel. 
Guess what, I’ve just realised that I never blogged about it before. Strange. 
Some thoughts: 
1/ About Charles Bovary’s early years: 
“… As a result of applying himself he was always around the middle of the class, once he even got a certificate of merit for natural history. But at the end of his remove year his parents took him away from school to study medicine, convinced he would be able to pass the baccalaureate on his own.” (P.1, Ch.1) 
I forgot this point. Bovary’s a dimwit, but maybe he studies the wrong thing and has the wrong career. 

2/ I almost forgot that he had a 1st wife, before meeting Emma. There are 3 Madame Bovarys in the book: the mother, the 1st wife, and Emma. Isn’t it curious how the book is called Madame Bovary, and not Emma Bovary? Think of Anna Karenina
The 1st wife is killed off quite conveniently—what would happen if she didn’t die, and Charles Bovary fell in love with Emma? Such fun. That’s not the story Flaubert chose to tell, but it’s fun to ponder over.

3/ The image of the sad, misanthropic Flaubert I have in my head makes me forget how funny he can be sometimes. 
Look at these lines—Monsieur Rouault tries to cheer up Bovary after the death of his 1st wife: 
“Thinking it was his duty to lavish as much courtesy as possible on the doctor because he was still grieving, he urged him not to think of taking his hat off, spoke to him quietly as if he were ill, even pretended to be annoyed that lighter dishes hadn’t been prepared for him, such as pots de crème or pears baked in the oven. He told stories. Charlies found himself laughing, but memories of his wife immediately came back to him and filled him with gloom. But then they brought coffee, and he stopped thinking about her.” (P.1, Ch.3) 
Now look at the wedding party: 
“They ate till evening. When people were tired of sitting down they took a stroll in the yard or had a game of bouchons in the barn then they came back to the table. Towards the end, a few nodded off and began snoring. But when coffee was served everything came back to life…” (P.1, Ch.4) 
Coffee solves everything indeed. 

4/ I notice the horse motif. 
Charles Bovary comes to treat Monsieur Rouault, and later visits him, on a horse. 
Emma in the convent reads sentimental stories, with “horses killed on every page” (Ch.6), and: 
“The Sisters, who had greatly overestimated her calling, were astonished to find Mademoiselle Rouault apparently slipping through their fingers. But they had lavished so many church services on her, so many retreats, novenas and sermons, preached so much about the respect owed to saints and martyrs, given so much good advice about maidenly modesty and the salvation of the soul, that she did what a horse does when you drag it by the mouth: she pulled up sharp, and the bit came out from between her teeth.” (ibid.) 
I’m sure the horse image will come up again. 

5/ The lines about Emma’s reaction to her mother’s death are the 1st indication that she is sentimental and affected, and likes to put on a show, but has no depth of feeling. That is what Madame Bovary is about, it’s not about adultery.

Wednesday 28 August 2019

Listening to Coltrane: the favourites

I’ve now listened to 12 John Coltrane albums: the 9 albums in the earlier post, plus Soultrane (1958), Dakar (recorded in 1957, released in 1963), and Olé Coltrane (1961).
Instead of writing something to expose my ignorance of music, I’m just going to say that my personal favourite albums are Blue Train, Kind of Blue, and Crescent. If Kind of Blue doesn’t count because it’s Miles Davis’s album and John Coltrane was only playing in the band, swap it with A Love Supreme.
So not Giant Steps. Not Ascension. That probably says something about me.
What about favourite tracks?
I struggle to pick a favourite from Blue Train and Kind of Blue, as I love the entire albums. A Love Supreme should be listened to in its entirety.
Crescent is wonderful as a whole, lyrical, sorrowful, but 2 tracks stand out: “Wise One” and “Lonnie’s Lament”.

Here are my other favourite tracks:
“Equinox” from Coltrane’s Sound:

“In a Sentimental Mood” from Duke Ellington& John Coltrane:

“Big Nick” from Duke Ellington& John Coltrane:

“Angelica” from Duke Ellington& John Coltrane:

“My Favorite Things” from My Favorite Things:

“Giant Steps” from Giant Steps:

 “Milestones” from Milestones:

“Good Bait” from Soultrane:

“Route 4” from Dakar:

Here is someone talking about the albums in a more articulate way:

My listening to Coltrane stopped at Ascension, which means that I haven’t listened to music of his later periods—avant-garde jazz and all that, like Living Space, Transition, Sun Ship, First Meditations, Interstellar Space, etc. That can wait. I don’t want to listen to him so obsessively that I can’t touch his music again in my life.
Next, I’ll probably focus on Miles Davis.

Saturday 24 August 2019

On the idea of relevance and relatableness in the arts

Recently I saw an article in The Guardian which argued that instead of Shakespeare and Dickens, students in English classes should be taught the kind of literature that would be more relevant to their lives.
These arguments are nothing new. Complaints about the teaching of Shakespeare and classic literature always amount to the same word—“relevance”. Even in the book blog world, lots of times I’ve found people criticising a book because they couldn’t relate to the characters or the characters were not relatable—just look at the things people have said about Lolita, Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park, Madame Bovary, and so on and so forth.  
As someone who love 19th century Russian literature, 50s-70s cinema, jazz, etc. I don’t understand. If you look at it that way, in literature and the other arts, I was born and grew up in Vietnam, then moved to Norway at the age of 15, and now live in the UK, and I’m in my mid-20s, how do you think I relate to the experience of Anna Karenina or Marya Bolkonskaya or Natasha Rostova? How do I find whaling relevant? How do I relate to black people’s experience and feel the pain in “Black and Blue” or “Strange Fruit” or “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”? 
But that is missing the point.  
The idea that readers have to find the story and themes relevant, and the characters relatable, is amusing. You’re facing a work of art, and if a classic, it’s a work of art that has stood the test of time and been recognised as part of the literary canon, why does it have to be about you? 
Don’t you care about history and its legacy?  
Don’t you care about the work of writers who have changed literature and influenced generations of readers and writers, perhaps including the modern writers you now like? 
Don’t you care about literary merit, and the power of literature?  
Don’t you care about the great achievements of the human mind? 
Don’t you care to learn about different lives, and different experiences you never (have to) go through?    
Don’t you have the imagination to see beyond your own lot, and seek to understand people who are very different from you? 
Don’t you care to expand your perspective? 
Why does reading have to be about you? 
I could go on and talk about empathy and some utilitarian values of literature, but it’s unnecessary. If as a reader you can only enjoy books that you personally find relevant and relatable, you’re limiting yourself, but I have no say in what you choose to read in your own spare time. It’s when people talk about the teaching of literature that the idea of relevance becomes a problem. 
One of the common arguments is that it puts you off reading. I don’t know where it comes from, I’ve heard people blame their dislike of reading on the books they read in high school, but how do they know that reading just isn’t their thing anyway, regardless of high school? I could say the same thing about physical education I had in school, but the fact is that I’ve never been athletic anyway. 
There are different kinds of students. There are students who, once they finish school, never touch a book again in their lives. And there are students who otherwise may not have opened these works of art themselves in their free time but appreciate being introduced to them, and would expand their reading beyond these works. Classes are the place for this. I’m lucky to come from a family of readers, but there would be students who don’t get that at home, and who are forced to read the literary works that they come to love. It’s similar to the way I was introduced to jazz—if not for that class at University of Oslo, I probably would never have got to jazz myself, and now I love it more than anything else. 
Another argument is that you don’t need Shakespeare to survive or get a job. Let’s be honest, just to survive or get a job, you don’t need most of the stuff you learn in school—when do you ever need those theorems in maths class or those physics equations or those chemical formulas, unless you choose to follow that particular field? But that’s not the point of education. 
All the talks about relevance and relatableness in literature and the arts are just stupid and nonsensical statements made by philistines. And if teachers think this way, they shouldn’t be teaching.


Announcing a read-along: 
I’m organising a (re)read-along of Madame Bovary. At the moment it’s me, Himadri (Argumentative Old Git), and my friend Anne. 
Does anyone else want to join?

Thursday 22 August 2019

Reading What a Fish Knows as a fish eater

After writing about fishes and their social relationships, Jonathan Balcombe devotes Part VI to fishes’ sexual behaviours and parenting styles. 
The chapter about fishes’ sex lives is, again, full of fascinating facts: promiscuous fishes (Balcombe’s word), polygamous fishes, monogamous fishes, fish harems, fishes that produce eggs and sperm at the same time (simultaneous hermaphrodites), fishes that change sex (sequential hermaphrodites, such as the clownfish of Finding Nemo), courtship, mating, oral sex and sperm drinking (yeah, you read that right), faking orgasms (you didn’t read that wrong either), external fertilisation, and so on. 
The chapter about parenting is also interesting, talking about protecting eggs and taking care of the young, helpers, and freeloaders (brood parasitism—a fish leaving its eggs with other fishes’ eggs to be protected and raised, like some birds do). 
Then we get to Part VII: “Fish out of Water”. That’s when I felt the book was starting to have a different tone. Or did I imagine it? Balcombe discusses fishing, bycatch (the fishes caught that are not wanted and thrown back into the sea), fish-farming, problems of hatchery-reared fishes that are released into the wild, different killing methods, different ways a fish may die when caught, shark finning, recreational fishing, and the practice of eating fish. 
As he talked about cruelty, fishes’ suffering, and moral concerns (the word “moral” gets repeated a lot in this section of the book), I started to realise that the whole point of the book was not only to tell people more about fishes and make them realise that fishes are smart and have individuality, but to get people to stop eating fish. 
Do I feel bad? In a way, yes. But would I stop eating fish? No. I eat meat and fish (and dairy and vegetables and so on). 
I’m not going to debate the subject of meat eating vs vegetarianism/ veganism—it’s not the point of this blog post. Vegetarianism/ veganism is a legitimate cause, if you do it for animal rights and the environment, and if you can commit to it, that’s good for you. It’s the preaching that is annoying. Perhaps my perception of the final part of the book and its epilogue is coloured by my experience with many vegetarians and vegans in real life and on social media, though I think that the book borders on preaching and trying to make you feel bad for eating meat and taking part in the cruel and inhumane treatment of fishes. People have different causes, just as they have different interests. With interests, we also have priorities and can’t get to know everything in depth, even things we do enjoy, because life is short—a friend of mine, for example, enjoys jazz but has to “neglect” it because he spends time on classical music and opera, whereas my decision to listen to John Coltrane properly at the moment means that I don’t have time for other kinds of music.  
It’s similar with causes. Some people do everything they can to limit their negative impact on the environment, that’s good. Some people fight for animal rights, that’s good. I come from a single-party state which doesn’t respect freedom or human rights, where people don’t have the most basic rights that Westerners take for granted, such as the right to vote for leaders or the right to remain silent. Dissidents get years in prison, people get killed whilst in custody… It’s hard to really care about animal rights. My main focus is on free speech, freedom, equality, and human rights. I care enough about animal rights to be against trophy hunting, hunting and killing endangered species, cruel treatment of animals in tourism, and that sort of thing, but not enough to be ready for the difficult commitment to a vegetarian or vegan diet. 
I can’t imagine a Vietnamese vegan either. A vegetarian, yes, but not a vegan. Compared to Westerners, we eat more kinds of animals, and also eat more of an animal—for example, with chicken, Westerners only eat the meat, we also eat the skin and feet, and make bone broth. Everything we eat has animal products—we have fish sauce, shrimp paste, and lots of other sauces and other kinds of food. Replace all ingredients with plant-based products, you don’t really have a Vietnamese dish. A vegan fresh spring roll isn’t a fresh spring roll. 
Having left my country, I only have the language, and the food. To become a vegetarian, or further (because, as vegans say, “it’s not enough to be a vegetarian, veganism is the way”) requires sacrifice, commitment, and a strong belief in the cause, all of which I lack.
Anyway, this is getting more personal, so let’s go back What a Fish Knows. It is a very interesting book, but it’s tiresome in the final part. I suppose that says more about me than about the book itself.

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Listening to Coltrane: the albums

As I’ve decided to delve into John Coltrane’s music, I’m going to listen in a more systematic way—listen to a whole album, instead of individual tracks here and there as I usually do.
Because Coltrane changed and developed his style over time, it’s useful to be aware of chronological order, and put the albums here. Note: for the time being, I’m not going to listen to every single of his albums chronologically, only a few main ones.
1957: Blue Train.

This is the first album that made me love Coltrane. For the past 2-3 years (I don’t have a good conception of time), “Blue Train” was one of the tracks by Coltrane that I kept coming back to (the other ones were “Equinox” and “So What”) but I love the entire album.

1958: Milestones—Miles Davis and John Coltrane started experimenting with modal jazz.

My favourite is the track “Milestones”.

1959: Kind of Blue—Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s masterpiece, and the best-selling jazz album of all time.

Apart from Miles Davis playing trumpet and John Coltrane playing tenor saxophone, the album had Cannonball Adderly on alto saxophone (except on “Blue in Green”), Bill Evans on piano (except on “Freddie Freeloader”), Wynton Kelly on piano (on “Freddie Freeloader”), Paul Chambers on double bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
Kind of Blue is just wonderful. I keep coming back to it. 

1959: Giant Steps—after Coltrane left Miles Davis to go in a new direction, this was his most influential album.

Youtube called “Giant Steps” “the most feared song in jazz”, because of the difficulty.

1960: My Favorite Things—1st album to feature Coltrane playing soprano saxophone.

It’s interesting to listen to Coltrane’s takes on these jazz standards, especially “Summertime”, though it’s barely recognisable anymore.

1962: Duke Ellington& John Coltrane.
I can’t find the full album on youtube, but I love “In a Sentimental Mood”, which I used in a recent video. It’s good to see Coltrane perform with another jazz musician I like.

It seems like a rather conservative album, compared to the experimental and revolutionary nature of “Giant Steps” and “My Favorite Things”.

1964: Crescent.

The album has McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on double bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.

1964: A Love Supreme—his most spiritual album, and one of the most critically acclaimed.

I’m not religious, not even particularly spiritual, but this is magnificent.

1965: Ascension— seen as a cornerstone of Coltrane’s work.

Slowly I would probably listen to everything, but these are the albums I choose for now.

Monday 19 August 2019

Changing tastes

1/ A few days ago I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s again, probably the 3rd time. 
My bf had never seen the film before, but knew about the controversy, which I assume most people would—the controversy about Mickey Rooney playing Mr Yunioshi. Put aside the fact that it’s a white actor wearing make-up and prosthetics to play an Asian character as comic relief, which is seen as offensive, it’s just not funny. Was it ever funny, when the film was released in 1961? It’s crude and unnecessary, and doesn’t fit in with the tone of the film. 
The Yunioshi character was the reason that I could never fully embrace the film. Now, seeing it again, I don’t like it much anymore. Audrey Hepburn is still charming and elegant, the cat is still cute, and Paul’s speech at the end of the film is still poignant, but maybe Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not for repeated viewings. Certain flaws become more obvious, some of the speech sounds expository. Maybe it’s one of those films that should be remembered, as a lovely charming thing, rather than seen again. 

2/ Every year I watch about 100 films, some of which are revisits. 
Some films demand multiple viewings—each time you see something new. Persona, the Mount Everest of film criticism, is an example. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is another. Or F for Fake
Masterpieces like Sunset Boulevard or Chinatown, which I saw again over the past year, never become boring or outdated. They are perfect. There are films I’ve seen 6-7 times and will still see again: The Godfather, Casablanca, The Silence of the Lambs, The Shawshank Redemption… 
Some films lose their magic on revisit. I enjoyed re-watching The Phantom of Liberty, which is whimsical and brilliant, but I no longer felt the fun upon my revisit of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—its charm relied too much on the random unexpectedness, which obviously was no longer there when I knew what was going to happen. Mother the 2nd time around was not as good, which is probably the case for films which rely heavily on the mystery and suspense of solving the case/ finding the murderer, and on the twist. As you watch it again, it no longer has much to keep your interest.  
That’s why a film like Chinatown still retain its magic on multiple viewings. I don’t watch it for the answers. I watch it for Jack Nicholson’s performance, for the character of Jack Gittes, for the great dialogue—sharp and full of meaning, for the tight structure and pace, and for John Huston and Faye Dunaway. 
And sometimes, watching a film again, we don’t like it anymore just because we have changed. I just don’t like American Beauty, Edward Scissorhands, or Scarface anymore, though I used to. Our tastes change over time. 

3/ A blog is a great place to make note of what I like, and keep track of how I’ve changed over time. 
In 2015, I listened to Billie Holiday all the time, obsessively, for a long period. Then it passed. Since then, it’s mostly Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone that I listen to. Sometimes Aretha Franklin. Sometimes Etta James. Sometimes Sarah Vaughan. 
Sometimes I wonder how many artists I like now, I will still like in 30 years, or 50 years. My formative years were the time in Norway—that was when I discovered classic cinema, photography, 19th century literature, Russian literature, and jazz. I reckon that for the rest of my life, these things will always be important to me, especially classic cinema, Russian literature, and jazz; it’s my views on the individual artists that change. 
Shall I try to predict? 
Tolstoy, I’m sure, will always be there. He is a giant, not only in Russia but in world literature, and his impact on my life cannot be overstated.  
Same with Nabokov. 
With Melville, I’m not sure, but Moby Dick will always be a favourite and an important novel. With Jane Austen, I expect to still respect her in 30 years, or even 50 years, because I already went from disliking her and thinking she was chicklit, to discovering the great depth and sensitivity in her works, but maybe one day I will no longer care about stories of growth, understanding, and self-understanding. We never know. 
In cinema, I think I will always like Ingmar Bergman and Billy Wilder. I once had a Wong Kar-wai phase, a Martin Scorsese phase, even a Stanley Kubrick phase, but Ingmar Bergman is a director whose films have everything that I think are important about cinema: great cinematography and lighting, striking imagery, creative and haunting use of sound, good editing, great acting and memorable performances, style, depth, personal vision, exploration of relationships and human consciousness, and formal experiments that push the boundaries of cinema. He was also the director that I discovered, and learnt from, during my 3 years at the film school, and who influenced my first short films. 
It’s also hard to imagine a time when I wouldn’t like Billy Wilder. Is there any other writer-director who writes more memorable dialogue and makes so many great films in such different genres? I love his sharp wit and humour, and the humanity of his films. 
About music, I know a few people who listen to jazz their whole lives, so I don’t suppose I will stop loving jazz. It’s just hard to say if I will always like John Coltrane, whom I’m focusing on at the moment. But I expect Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to always be there, on their own or together. I don’t like watching Louis Armstrong—his grin makes me uncomfortable, but I can listen to him all day. People talk about his optimism, which isn’t wrong for songs such as “What a Wonderful World”, but there’s nothing so haunting like the pain in his performance of “Black and Blue”. 
Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald on their own are fantastic. Together, they’re recognised as the greatest duets in jazz. Her velvety voice softens his edges. My favourite of theirs is “Summertime”. 
Well, let’s see how things turn out.

Sunday 18 August 2019

Listening to Coltrane

I discovered jazz several years ago, when doing a course called Multicultural American Literature at University of Oslo, which should have been called African American Literature and Jazz Music. My lecturer was American and had a degree in literature and a degree in jazz. He introduced us, or at least me, to jazz—I’m still thankful for that course.
Over the past few years, I’ve been listening to jazz, mostly vocals, especially Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, also Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, etc. I also listen to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, bit of Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck… (can’t really get into Charlie Parker at all). 
These days I’ve been thinking that I listen to jazz in a rather superficial way. I’m a literature and cinema person rather than a music person. I enjoy jazz, but can’t talk about it, the way I can talk about a book or a film, and can’t recognise the individual style of each musician. This needs to change.
For now I want to get to “know” John Coltrane properly. Listening to A Love Supreme at the moment. 

Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s album “Kind of Blue”, one of the most successful jazz records in history.

Obviously I spent yesterday listening to it, several times. Isn’t that just wonderful? Especially “So What” and “Blue in Green”.
Here’s a video of their live performance of “So What”:

I won’t say anything about Kind of Blue, because, as I said, I can’t talk about jazz. But I do love the combination of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Just divine.
Found this article:

Friday 16 August 2019

Fishes and social contracts

In Part V of What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe writes about fishes in a community—with company/tank mates or in a shoal or school of fishes. You now may ask, do fishes recognise each other? They do. Fishes may have patterns that are only visible in UV light. Balcombe says, fishes have individual recognition, memory, and preference about whom they choose to swim with; they also have personalities. Do they recognise human faces? People who have pet fishes say yes.
Yesterday I made a video about fish watching, using my footage of The Deep (aquarium in Hull). Watch who swims with whom.

Now, to get back to the book, the most fascinating section of Part V is when Balcombe writes about social contracts among fishes—consider the cleaner-client symbiosis of fishes.
“The system works as follows. 1 or 2 cleanerfishes signal that they are open for business. They work at specific locations, and may use swimming postures and bright colours to enhance the signal’s visibility (a fish’s version of the rotating red-white-blue cylinder outside a barbershop). Other fishes of various types congregate at the cleaning station, where they wait their turn to be serviced by the cleaners. […] [Cleaners] pick over the clients’ bodies, removing parasites, dead skin, algae, and other undesirable blemishes. Clients benefit by receiving a spa treatment, including parasite removal. Cleaners get fed.”
So which species are they?
“Marine cleanerfishes include many wrasses, some triggerfishes, butterflyfishes, discus fishes, damselfishes, angelfishes, gobies, leatherjackets, pipefishes, sea chubs, surfperches, suckerfishes, jacks, and topsmelts. Freshwater cleanerfishes include cichlids, guppies, carps, sunfishes, killifishes, and sticklebacks. Some invertebrates, including several shrimps, also provide cleaning services. Client lists number well over 100 known fish species, including sharks and rays. Other clients include lobsters, sea turtles, sea snakes, octopuses, marine iguanas, whales, hippopotamuses, and humans.” 
Regarding humans, in Asian (I think Chinese) spas, people can dangle their feet in pool for cleanerfishes to pluck over.
“This is a dramatic scene if the client is a large predator. Although a shark or a moral eel could easily snap up the cleaner for a quick snack; it just isn’t savvy to eat your service provider.
But it is kosher to show consideration toward them. […]
Grey reef sharks invite cleaners to service them by angling their bodies upward and opening their mouths wide. The cleaners show no fear as they enter the shark’s deadly cavern. They seem to know that this massive predator, hundreds of times their size, means them no harm.”
Isn’t that so interesting?
The relationship between a cleanerfish and their client is also not random.
“It is built on trust, and cultivated over weeks or months. A social contract such as this requires that individual cleaners recognise their clients. With dozens of clients per cleaner, cleanerfishes maintain an impressive mental database of clientele. In choice experiments where a cleaner could choose to swim near 1 of 2 clients, the cleaner spent more time near a familiar one. […]
In addition to remembering whom they cleaned, cleaner wrasses can also remember when they cleaned them. They are more likely to give precedence, say, to a particular triggerfish client who missed their last appointment, because that client will probably have greater parasite buildup.”
These fishes can use memory along 3 dimensions—who, when, and what. They demonstrate episodic memory.
“If a fish can track past events, might she also be able to predict future ones? […] Roving cleaners are more cooperative with their clients near the centre of their home ranges, where they are more likely to reencounter client fishes. They do less mucus nipping and cause fewer ‘jolts’ in their clients during cleaning interactions.”
This is like our behaviour—human beings are more cooperative with a partner when we’re likely to interact with them again. Doesn’t this make you look at fishes in a different way?
Now, just as in the business world of human beings, there can be conflicts, cheats, and frauds, there are equivalents in the fish world.
The conflict between cleaners and clients is because cleaners most like to glean from the mucus, which has more nutritional value and might taste better than algae and parasites, and clients wouldn’t like this.
“A jolt happens when a client flinches as a cleaner nips at the protective mucus layer that surrounds a fish’s body.”
Consequently, cleaners give clients some tactile stimulation.
“They do this by facing away from the client and stroking them with rapid movements of their pelvic and pectoral fins. This caressing behaviour seems to be done for 2 reasons: (1) to encourage a client to stay longer at the cleaning station, and (2) to mollify a client following a jolt. Cleaners are more likely to caress a predaceous client, probably because it lowers the risk of an aggressive chase from a potentially dangerous customer.”
I don’t know, that sounds like a massage to me.
The cleaner-client symbiosis, in many ways, mirror business relationships in the human world. For example, if we read reviews before watching a film or ordering a product online, prospective client fishes “watch the performances of cleaners before deciding whether to let a particular cleaner inspect them”, mucus-nipping cleaners are shunned, and cleaners do a better job when they are being watched.
“If a new client, who has no history with the cleaner, is cheated, he or she simply swims away. But a resident client who has built up a relationship of trust with the cleaner behaves as if having been insulted: he chases the cleaner around.”
Cheats get punished.
This social system is highly complex and “encompasses long-term relationships built on trust, crime and punishment, choosiness, audience awareness, reputation, and brownnosing.”
Guess what, there are also con artists in the fish world—fishes that pretend to be cleanerfishes, and when the client least expects it, the impostor takes a bite of fin and dashes for cover.
I can no longer look at fishes the same way again.

Thursday 15 August 2019

What does a fish know?

After discussing fish feelings, Jonathan Balcombe moves onto fish cognition: What are fishes’ mental abilities? 

“Here’s an example of fish intelligence, courtesy of the frillfin goby, a small fish of intertidal zones of both eastern and western Atlantic shores. When the tide goes out, frillfins like to stay near shores, nestled in warm, isolated tide pools where they may find lots of tasty tidbits. But tide pools are not always safe havens from danger. Predators such as octopuses or herons may come foraging, and it pays to make a hasty exit. But where is a little fish to go? Frillfin gobies deploy an improbable manoeuver: they leap to a neighbouring pond. 
How do they do it without ending up on the rocks, doomed to die in the sun? 
With prominent eyes, slightly puffy cheeks looking down on a pouting mouth, a rounded tail, and tan-grey-brown blotchy markings along a 3-inch, torpedo-shaped body: the frillfin goby hardly looks like a candidate for the Animal Einstein Olympics. But its brain is an overachiever by any standard. For the little frillfin memorises the topography of the intertidal zone—fixing in its mind the layout of depressions that will form future pools in the rocks at low tide—while swimming over them at high tide!” (Part IV) 
This, Balcombe says, is an example of cognitive mapping. 
“… But can fishes spontaneously invent tool use, as we can when unexpected conditions require us to improvise? In May 2014, a study highlighted an example of innovative tool use by Atlantic cods being held in captivity for aquaculture research. Each fish wore a coloured plastic tag affixed to the back near the dorsal fin, which allowed the researchers to identify them individually. The holding tank had a self-feeder activated by a string with a loop at the end, and the fishes soon learned that they could release a morsel of food by swimming up to the loop, grabbing it in their mouth, and pulling on it. 
Apparently by accident, some of the cods discovered that they could activate the feeder by hooking the loop onto their tag and then swimming a short distance away. These clever cods honed their technique through hundreds of ‘tests’—and it became a finely tuned series of goal-directed, coordinated movements. It also demonstrated true refinement, because the innovators were able to grab the pellet a fraction of a second faster than by using their mouth to get the food. That fishes are routinely expected to interact with a foreign device to feed themselves is impressive enough, but that some devised a new way of using their tags shows a fish’s capacity for flexibility and originality.” 
In these chapters, Balcombe talks about lots of studies regarding fishes’ cognition skills. These studies demonstrate that fishes, or at least the fishes used in the experiments, can create mental maps, remember escape routes, have good memory, be trained to perform tricks, learn from experience, innovate to solve a problem, use tools (for example, smash open a clam against a rock), learn from observing other fishes (observational learning skills), and so on. 
They’re smarter than we think. 
He also talks about tigerfishes catching and eating birds, which means that they must know about the distortion of image over water surface and how to calculate to make a leap from the right angle and with the right speed so they can ambush the bird—planning instead of making random leaps and snaps at the air. 
I’m disappointed he doesn’t mention the bird-eating fishes in David Attenborough’s documentary.
At the end of Part IV in What a Fish Knows, Balcombe talks about the plurality and contextuality of intelligence, and our “wobbly criteria for gauging intelligence”. There are, instead, “multiple intelligences”, manifesting in different sets of skills and abilities. If something is critical for a species’ survival, it would be good at it. 

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Fish videos: hunting, being hunted

As I read Jonathan Balcombe’s What a Fish Knows, I find it useful to have my phone next to me, to google images of the fish species he’s talking about. Sometimes I search for videos.
Watch this video I found:

This is one of the best nature sequences I’ve ever seen. The thrill! For some seconds at the beginning, I thought that flying fishes were magical, and then…
Man, if you think your life is tough, think about flying fishes.
Now let’s watch another video.
You know birds eat fishes, but did you know some fishes eat birds?

Here’s the story of the filming if anyone’s interested:
This is crazy.


The other day I saw a David Attenborough documentary called Creatures of the Deep. Fantastic stuff. There’s footage of a Humboldt squid hunting, which is awesome because of its massive size and its speed, but I can’t find the sequence on youtube.
However, the footage of jellyfishes and a fried egg jellyfish is here: 

(I know jellyfishes are not fishes. But the video is cool, no?).
The fried egg jellyfish is massive. And it looks just like a fried egg.

Tuesday 13 August 2019

What can a fish feel?

Jonathan Balcombe writes about the debate over whether fishes can feel pain. One of the main points of What a Fish Knows is that, yes, fishes can feel pain and can suffer—as a vegetarian, he notes that human beings don’t treat fishes very nicely, and he doesn’t understand why some people don’t eat meat but eat fish. He aims to write a book on behalf of fishes.
However, Balcombe doesn’t write in an emotional, sentimental kind of way, but bases the book on scientific facts, research, and studies, and now and then sprinkles the narrative with some anecdotes.
The fact that a fish doesn’t have a neocortex doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have consciousness and therefore doesn’t feel pain. Look at birds, the bird-brain myth has long been debunked—they can use tools, remember for months locations of thousands of buried objects, recognise a neighbour’s voice, categorise objects, and so on.
Balcombe says:
“If any animal without a neocortex is nevertheless conscious, it disproves the notion that a neocortex is required for consciousness. As such, it is no basis for a claim that fishes are unconscious. ‘There are many ways to get to a complex awareness’, says the neuroscientist Lori Marino of Emory University. ‘To suggest that fishes cannot feel pain because they don’t have sufficient neuroanatomy is like arguing that balloons cannot fly because they don’t have wings.’
Or that humans cannot swim because they don’t have fins.” (Part III)
He then spends the next few pages writing about the scientific experiments on trouts and zebrafishes. Fishes’ responses to pain are not mere reflexes. The experiments provide evidence that a fish can “feel both initial, sharp pain and the lasting pain that follows”, responds to different kinds and levels of pain in different ways, in pain may be “distracted” and unable to perform normal survival behaviours, can improve with painkillers (“Morphine belongs to a family of drugs called opioids, and fishes are known to have an opioid-responsive system”), can withstand higher temperature with morphine before reacting to it, and is willing to pay a cost for pain relief.
Whether fishes feel pain is a question of cardinal importance, because it forces us to question the practice of catching and eating fishes, even if it doesn’t change our eating habits.
Reading Jonathan Balcombe’s book, I myself am more interested in whether fishes can experience other kinds of feelings. He argues that they can, and do.
For example, they can feel pleasure—the pleasure of touch.
“Fishes often touch one another in pleasurable contexts. Many court with rubbing or gentle nips. Cleanerfishes curry favour with their valued clients by caressing them with their fins as a means to strengthen the cleaner-client relationship. Moral eels and groupers approach familiar divers and receive strokes and chin rubs.” (Part II)
Sharks, rays, and skates also “show pleasurable responses to touch”. Balcombe mentions the story of manta rays that enjoy bubble massages (the diver “swims beneath them and bellows bubbles from her SCUBA regulator”). There’s also a similar story with zebra sharks.
He goes on:
“Besides touch, there are many other ways that fishes may derive pleasure. Food, play, and sex spring to mind. And then there’s comfort for its own sake. Southern bluefin tunas in the waters of Australia spend hours rolling on their sides, catching the sun’s rays. It’s not known for sure why they do this. 1 possibility is that they are sunbathing to raise their body temperature, which in turn helps them swim and react faster, making them more efficient hunters. I expect the warmth of the sun also feels good to a tuna, for pleasure evolved to reward useful behaviours.” (ibid.)
According to What a Fish Knows, fishes can feel pain, fear, and stress, and they may seek relief. They have social lives and can feel compassion. They can have curiosity. They can also feel joy, and enjoy play.
I will not write more details, because I think you should read Jonathan Balcombe’s book. It is a good book, an enjoyable read full of fascinating facts.
But it’s interesting to talk about fishes being playful and feeling joy. Fishes don’t get much sympathy probably because they don’t have facial expressions and make sounds in the way that mammals do, and they seem boring—as a pet, there isn’t much you can do with a fish, like with a dog or a cat. But they can enjoy play.
Gordon M. Burghardt, an ethologist at the University of Tennessee, studies fish play, and defines play as follows:
“1. It does not achieve any clear survival purpose, such as mating, feeding, or fighting;
2. it is voluntary, spontaneous, or rewarding;
3. it differs from typical functional behaviours (sexual, territorial, predatory, defensive, foraging) in form, target, or timing;
4. it is repeated but not neurotic; and
5. it takes place only in the absence of stressors, such as hunger, disease, crowding, or predation.” (Part III)
An example is fishes riding air bubbles. I’ve found this video:

That is play.
Fishes can have object play, social play (even interspecies social play), and solitary play.
Another example could be fishes jumping and leaping. Why do they jump? We don’t know.
Balcombe says: 
“Mobula rays aren’t motivated by fear when they hurl their large bodies (up to a 17-foot wingspan and a ton in weight) skyward in leaps of up to 10 feet before splashing down with a loud slap. […] They do it in schools of hundreds. Most of their leaps are calculated to land them on their bellies, but sometimes they do a forward somersault, landing on their backs. Males seem to be the initiators, so some speculate that there might be a courtship role. Other scientists think it might be a parasite removal strategy. Whatever its function, I posit that the rays are enjoying themselves.”
Here’s a video of mobula rays leaping:

Doesn’t that look fun?
Fishes are awesome.

Sunday 11 August 2019

How does a fish perceive the world?

I’m reading What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe. Why? Since you ask, I want to learn about fishes. 
This is a fascinating book. 
“What we casually refer to as ‘fish’ is in fact a collection of animals of fabulous diversity. According to FishBase—the largest and most often consulted online database on fishes—33249 species, in 564 families and 64 orders, had been described as of January 2016. That’s more than the combined total of all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. When we refer to ‘fish’ we are referring to 60% of all the known species on Earth with backbones.” (Part I) 
You can read this book to learn some basic facts about fishes. For example, almost all modern fishes are members of 1 of 2 major groups: bony fishes (salmons, herrings, basses, tunas, eels, flounders, goldfishes, carps, pikes, minnows...) and cartilaginous fishes (sharks, rays, skates, chimaeras…). 
The book is also full of weird facts, such as this: 
“On finding a female, males of some deep-sea anglerfish species latch their mouths onto her body and stay there for the remainder of their lives. It doesn’t matter much where they fix their bite on the female—it could be on her abdomen or her head—they eventually become fused to her. Many times smaller, the male resembles little more than a modified fin, living off her blood supply and fertilizing her intravenously. 1 female may end up with 3 or more males sprouting from her body like vestigial limbs. 
[…] It is estimated that female deep-sea anglerfishes occur at a density of about 1 per 800000 cubic meters (28 million cubic feet) of water, which means a male is searching for a football-size object in a darkened space about the volume of a football stadium. Thus, it is desperately hard for anglerfishes to find each other in the vast darkness of the abyss, making it wise to hang on to your partner if you find one. 
[…] In exchange for the male being the ultimate couch potato, the female never has to wonder where her mate is on a Saturday evening. It turns out that some males do indeed amount to little more than an appendage.” (ibid.)  
“Baby flounders look like any other normal fish, swimming upright with 1 eye on each side. Then, in preparation for adult life, they undergo a bizarre transformation: 1 eye migrates to the other side of the face. It’s like facial reconstructive surgery, only in slow motion, and without scalpels and sutures. It isn’t even always slow. The entire migration takes just 5 days if you’re a starry flounder, and less than 1 day in some species. If a fish can have an awkward adolescence, this one qualifies.” (Part II) 
Here’s a photo: 

I hope Balcombe writes about rays, which have eyes on the upper side of their bodies and mouths on the other side. 
Now check this out: 
“Flashlight fishes—one of the few bioluminescent fishes generally not found in deep waters—take a more direct approach to illumination, using a multifunctional light consisting of a semi-circular organ just below each eye. This pair of organs contains luminescent bacteria whose continuously emitted light can be turned on and off by the fish using a muscular lid. […] Mated pairs of flashlight fishes maintain territories over a reef, and if an intruding flashlight fish approaches, the female of the pair will swim up and flash her light literally in the interloper’s face, as if to say ‘Get lost!’.” (ibid.) 
That’s cool. Here are some photos: 

Such fascinating facts. 
I’ve been enjoying this book also because I’m interested in how fishes perceive the world. Balcombe’s intention in writing the book, it seems, is to debunk myths, and to help people realise that fishes (he prefers this to “fish”) are a lot more complex, knowing, and interesting than we realise—they are sentient beings, with personalities and feelings. 
He writes about their sense and perceptions. Most fishes can see more colours than we do—they can see light in the near UV spectrum. Fishes can hear, some can hear ultrasounds, much above human limit, whilst some others are responsive to infrasounds as low as 1 Hz.  
Fishes can also create sounds: 
“Despite the common assumption that fishes are silent, they actually have more ways of producing sounds than any other group of vertebrate animals. None of these methods involve the main method of all the other vertebrates: the vibration of air against membranes. Fishes can rapidly contract a pair of vocal muscles to vibrate their swim bladder, which also serves as a sound amplifier. They have the options of grating their teeth in their jaws, grinding additional sets of teeth lining their throat, rubbing bones together, stridulating their gill covers, and even—as we’ll see—expelling bubbles from their anuses.” (ibid.) 
The descriptors human beings have assigned to fishes’ symphony of sounds are: “hums, whistles, thumps, stridulations, creaks, grunts, pops, croaks, pulses, drums, knocks, purrs, brrrs, clicks, moans, chirps, buzzes, growls, and snaps.” (ibid.) 
Not only so, fishes fall for optical illusions like humans, which means that they perceive things and form mental concepts instead of perceiving visual fields in a mindless, mechanical way, like robots.  
They also know more than we think they do—they can be trained, and as shown in a study, can distinguish between different music genres. 
I’m afraid that after reading this book, I can’t eat fish again. I love salmon.

Saturday 10 August 2019

On finishing Little Dorrit

After about a month, I’ve finished reading Little Dorrit
With the resolution, it’s good that there’s some justice, but it doesn’t feel very satisfying that the villain is gotten rid of so conveniently and Arthur Clennam is saved so easily. I’m not sure how I feel about the situation with the Dorrits either—looking at them and Arthur, I can’t help thinking, what kind of dummy puts all of their money in 1 place? 
Still, Little Dorrit is a great, underrated book. It’s a sombre book. It’s a book of so much anger, disillusionment, and bitterness. 
It’s about injustices in Britain against debtors, and their prison conditions. It’s about the bureaucracy and aristocracy. It’s about deception and betrayal. It’s about frauds and criminals. It’s about failed benevolence—the ineffectual Arthur tries to do good but doesn’t know how.  
Above all, Little Dorrit is about characters who nurse a grievance and destroy themselves because of it. Miss Havisham in Great Expectations is perhaps Dickens’s most famous character who nurses a grievance, but there are several such characters, of varying degrees, in Little Dorrit: Fanny Dorrit, who is willing to sacrifice her own happiness to get back at the woman who insulted her; Miss Wade, who is forever filled with hatred and bitterness; Harriet Beadle (Tattycoram), who has a similar sense of resentment and thus lets herself be manipulated by Miss Wade; William Dorrit, who is unable to move on from his years in prison and keeps imagining that everyone mocks him; Mrs Clennam, who, in her anger and self-righteous punishment of others, condemns herself to a life of unhappiness… I have written about Fanny Dorrit and Miss Wade, but Mrs Clennam becomes more interesting in the final chapters of the book. From afar, she is a hardened woman—terrifying in her coldness. The final chapters reveal her to be full of guilt and suffering, because of her own doing. She comes to have more life.  
Some other characters are also full of resentment, such as Henry Gowan and Arthur Clennam. Henry has no talent as an artist, so he mocks everyone and sees art as pointless, and resents being related to the Barnacles but not having their wealth. Arthur too is bitter, because he fails in everything, and now thinks that he is too old—his time has passed. 
When Little Dorrit is seen in this way, it is no longer an issue that Amy Dorrit is so “perfect”. She is their opposite, and in a way, a model of how one should be. She accepts her situation without shame and without self-delusion, tries to be understanding and kind to everyone, lives honestly and does her duty, and feels grateful for everything she has. She resents nothing, and therefore doesn’t let any anger destroy herself or her life. 


Little Dorrit is indeed sombre in tone and themes, but hey we’re talking about Dickens!—it is full of vitality. 
Look at this: 
“… Mr F.‘s Aunt, who had eaten a piece of toast down to the crust, here solemnly handed the crust to Flora, who ate it for her as a matter of business. Mr F.‘s Aunt then moistened her ten fingers in slow succession at her lips, and wiped them in exactly the same order on the white handkerchief; then took the other piece of toast, and fell to work upon it. While pursuing this routine, she looked at Clennam with an expression of such intense severity that he felt obliged to look at her in return, against his personal inclinations.” (B.2, ch.9) 
“… With those words and a parting glance, Flora bustled out, leaving Clennam under dreadful apprehension of this terrible charge.
The first variation which manifested itself in Mr F.‘s Aunt’s demeanour when she had finished her piece of toast, was a loud and prolonged sniff. Finding it impossible to avoid construing this demonstration into a defiance of himself, its gloomy significance being unmistakable, Clennam looked plaintively at the excellent though prejudiced lady from whom it emanated, in the hope that she might be disarmed by a meek submission.
‘None of your eyes at me,’ said Mr F.‘s Aunt, shivering with hostility. ‘Take that.’
‘That’ was the crust of the piece of toast. Clennam accepted the boon with a look of gratitude, and held it in his hand under the pressure of a little embarrassment, which was not relieved when Mr F.‘s Aunt, elevating her voice into a cry of considerable power, exclaimed, ‘He has a proud stomach, this chap! He’s too proud a chap to eat it!’ and, coming out of her chair, shook her venerable fist so very close to his nose as to tickle the surface.” (ibid.) 
Can there be a comparable scene anywhere? That is fantastic. 
Little Dorrit is such a great and enjoyable book.