FILM FORTNIGHT: The History Boys

OK, back to films this time, specifically The History Boy. Something of an old favourite of mine, the kind of thing I occasionally catch myself running through in my head. And with the death just a few weeks ago of one of the film’s stars Richard Griffiths, it seemed only right to turn my gaze to it now. So…,

There is a particular type of film that attempts to be compelling by getting rid of almost all the distractions of plot in favour of plundering the rich resources posed by character, behaviour, context and emotional development. The storyline of such films tend to be based around small scenes that mean very little on their own but serve largely as a framework for the important parts of the film itself to play out around them; a nice idea, if it can be pulled off. Done wrong and we are left with two hours of tedium whilst a bunch of theatrical hipsters pretend to hold the emotional and intellectual high ground, and a lot is left down to the sheer ability of the actors concerned to execute their roles; it’s one of the reasons why reading Shakespeare out of a textbook is so much less compelling than a well-executed live performance, and why so many schoolchildren get turned off by it. That, combined with the overly florid Elizabethan language, and the fact that they have to study Twelfth Night.

The History Boys is, thankfully, burdened by neither of the latter two issues, but its format makes the former a major point of potential worry; set in a Sheffield school in 1983, our story opens with eight history student getting their A-level grades, and very well they’ve done too. For this reason, the school (and its rather ambitious headmaster, Clive Merrison’s Felix) encourages them to apply to read history at Oxbridge, for which they need to take an entrance exam that will require another term’s schooling and revision. The other main players are their teachers: history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Francis de la Tour), specialist exam-preparation teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and the colourful General Studies teacher Hector (Griffiths). “General Studies” here being taken as a rather loose term.

The teachers are the main source of the film’s drama; Irwin, recruited at the start of the film, offers up a totally different approach to the boys’ previous teaching style and, indeed, a different perspective on history itself, which results in one or two moments that strike a little close to the bone for some. Then we have Hector, who doesn’t teach so much as mess around in a classroom for a couple of hours, before offering the boys a lift home on his moped and casually groping them along the way. Whilst the boys have an amicable relationship with him over this, it’s kind of obvious to see that this isn’t going to end well.

It should be pointed out that all of this is established within the first 20 minutes of the film, and indeed there is practically no plot movement in the centre of the film; it is all left open purely for character interaction and development. This ‘interaction’ is frequently rather risqué in nature, but for such a serious, deeply emotional film it’s surprising the extent to which the film seems determined to have fun and enjoy itself; credit must go to Alan Bennett (the writer of the original play) for managing to inject so much humour into the piece. The actors also appear suffused with the spirit of the thing, and turn out some wonderful performances; special mention must go to Dominic Cooper for a starring turn as the sexually-charged, rather aggressively bright Dakin, and Griffiths, who at no point in the entire film looks like he’s acting rather than just doing what comes naturally. However, none of that changes the fact that this is a film built around practically nothing happening, and looking back now I struggle to visualise how the rather confused web of scenes fit together, and how indeed the film manages to make any sense at all.

However, no matter how much I try to apply fridge logic to the situation, the fact is that it simply does; it’s just that well done. Nicholas Hytner’s film is so engrossing and insidiously enthralling that everything becomes just about the characters, as if one is in fact part of this eclectic little group and this is your life playing out around you. These are your friends, your mentors, the people you laugh with, the people you cry over; it’s a slice of life at its most real yet most compelling, and most beautiful. 99 times out of 100 this sort of thing surely wouldn’t work, but by its being sit at a point in these boys’ lives that is so pivotal, and by framing it in such a fantastically well-executed manner, the realism of the event manages to feel purposeful rather than meandering. There’s something deeply satisfying, like watching an old friend come good, about watching the way these characters develop and grow over 100 minutes’ screentime, and it’s all very… right, somehow. And that’s even before we get to the ending; a tear-jerking third act that manages to hit every point on the emotional spectrum before cascading into a bittersweet crescendo of beauty and hope that would strike dumb even the most loquacious of critics. I could spend all day analysing every little intricate moment of these few minutes, every emotional tug and every moment of simultaneous hope and pain, but am restricted by both my wish not to spoil anything and my wish not to write something 5000 words long.

The History Boys is many things; relatively slow, rather lacking in plot and based around a decidedly unconventional idea being among them. But it honestly doesn’t matter; when a film attempts to mean this much, and pulls it off with such spectacular aplomb, any attempt to degrade it somewhat misses the point. If you haven’t watched it yet, then you’re missing out on something special.

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma

It’s a classic thought experiment, mathematical problem and a cause of much philosophical debate. Over the years it has found its way into every sphere of existence from serious lecturing to game shows to, on numerous occasions, real life. It has been argued as being the basis for all religion, and its place in our society. And to think that it, in its purest form, is nothing more than a story about two men in a jail- the prisoner’s dilemma.

The classic example of the dilemma goes roughly as follows; two convicts suspected of a crime are kept in single custody, separated from one another and unable to converse. Both are in fact guilty of the crime, but the police only have evidence to convict them for a small charge, worth a few months in jail if neither of them confess (the ‘cooperation’ option). However, if they ‘rat out’ on their partner, they should be able to get themselves charged with only a minor offence for complicity, worth a small fine, whilst their partner will get a couple of years behind bars. But, if both tell on one another, revealing their partnership in the crime, both can expect a sentence of around a year.

The puzzle comes under the title (in mathematics) of game theory, and was first formally quantified in the 1950s, although the vague principle was understood for years before that. The real interest of the puzzle comes in the strange self-conflicting logic of the situation; in all cases, the prisoner gets a reduced punishment if they rat out on their partner (a fine versus a prison sentence if their partner doesn’t tell on them, and one year rather than two if they do), but the consequence for both following the ‘logical’ path is a worse punishment if neither of them did. Basically, if one of them is a dick then they win, but if both of them are dicks then they both lose.

The basic principle of this can be applied to hundreds of situations; the current debate concerning climate change is one example. Climate change is a Bad Thing that looks set to cause untold trillions of dollars in damage over the coming years, and nobody actively wants to screw over the environment; however, solving the problem now is very expensive for any country, and everyone wants it to be somebody else’s problem. Therefore, the ‘cooperate’ situation is for everyone to introduce expensive measures to combat climate change, but the ‘being a dick’ situation is to let everyone else do that whilst you don’t bother and reap the benefits of both the mostly being fixed environment, and the relative economic boom you are experiencing whilst all the business rushes to invest in a country with less taxes being demanded. However, what we are stuck with now is the ‘everyone being a dick’ scenario where nobody wants to make a massive investment in sustainable energy and such for fear of nobody else doing it, and look what it’s doing to the planet.

But I digress; the point is that it is the logical ‘best’ thing to take the ‘cooperate’ option, but that it seems to make logical sense not to do so, and 90% of the moral and religious arguments made over the past couple of millennia can be reduced down to trying to make people pick the ‘cooperate’ option in all situations. That they don’t can be clearly evidenced by the fact that we still need armies for defensive purposes (it would be cheaper for us not to, but we can’t risk the consequences of someone raising an army to royally screw everyone over) and the ‘mutually assured destruction’ situation that developed between the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals during the Cold War.

Part of the problem with the prisoner’s dilemma situation concerns what is also called the ‘iterative prisoner’s dilemma’- aka, when the situation gets repeated over and over again. The reason this becomes a problem is because people can quickly learn what kind of behaviour you are likely to adopt, meaning that if you constantly take the ‘nice’ option people will learn that you can be easily be beaten by repeatedly taking the ‘arsehole’ option, meaning that the ‘cooperate’ option becomes the less attractive, logical one (even if it is the nice option). All this changes, however, if you then find yourself able to retaliate, making the whole business turn back into the giant pissing contest of ‘dick on the other guy’ we were trying to avoid. A huge amount of research and experimentation has been done into the ‘best’ strategy for an iterative prisoner’s dilemma, and they have found that a broadly ‘nice’, non-envious strategy, able to retaliate against an aggressive opponent but quick to forgive, is most usually the best; but since, in the real world, each successive policy change takes a large amount of resources, this is frequently difficult to implement. It is also a lot harder to model ‘successful’ strategies in continuous, rather than discrete, iterative prisoner’s dilemmas (is it dilemmas, or dilemmae?), such as feature most regularly in the real world.

To many, the prisoner’s dilemma is a somewhat depressing prospect. Present in almost all walks of life, there are countless examples of people picking the options that seem logical but work out negatively in the long run, simply because they haven’t realised the game theory of the situation. It is a puzzle that appears to show the logical benefit of selfishness, whilst simultaneously demonstrating its destructiveness and thus human nature’s natural predisposition to pursuing the ‘destructive’ option. But to me, it’s quite a comforting idea; not only does it show that ‘logic’ is not always as straightforward as it seems, justifying the fact that one viewpoint that seems blatantly, logically obvious to one person may not be the definitive correct one, but it also reveals to us the mathematics of kindness, and that the best way to play a game is the nice way.

Oh, and for a possibly unique, eminently successful and undoubtedly hilarious solution to the prisoner’s dilemma, I refer you here. It’s not a general solution, but it’s still a pretty cool one 🙂

Why the chubs?

My last post dealt with the thorny issue of obesity, both it’s increasing presence in our everyday lives, and what for me is the underlying reason behind the stats that back up media scare stories concerning ‘the obesity epidemic’- the rise in size of the ‘average’ person over the last few decades. The precise causes of this trend can be put down to a whole host of societal factors within our modern age, but that story is boring as hell and has been repeated countless times by commenters far more adept in this field than me. Instead, today I wish present the case for modern-day obesity as a problem concerning the fundamental biology of a human being.

We, and our dim and distant ancestors of the scaly/furry variety, have spent the last few million years living wild; hunting, fighting and generally acting much like any other evolutionary pathway. Thus, we can learn a lot about our own inbuilt biology and instincts by studying the behaviour of animals currently alive today, and when we do so, several interesting animal eating habits become apparent. As anyone who has tried it as a child can attest (and I speak from personal experience), grass is not good stuff to eat. It’s tough, it takes a lot of chewing and processing (many herbivores have multiple stomachs to make sure they squeeze the maximum nutritional value out of their food), and there really isn’t much of it to power a fully-functional being. As such, grazers on grass and other such tough plant matter (such as leaves) will spend most of their lives doing nothing but guzzle the stuff, trying to get as much as possible through their system. Other animals will favour food with a higher nutritional content, such as fruits, tubers or, in many cases, meat, but these frequently present issues. Fruits are highly seasonal and rarely available in a large enough volume to support a large population, as well as being quite hard to get a lot of down; plants try to ‘design’ fruits so that each visitor takes only a few at a time, so as best to spread their seeds far and wide, and as such there are few animals that can sustain themselves on such a diet.  Other food such as tubers or nuts are hard to get at, needing to be dug up or broken in highly energy-consuming activities, whilst meat has the annoying habit of running away or fighting back whenever you try to get at it. As anyone who watches nature documentaries will attest, most large predators will only eat once every few days (admittedly rather heavily).

The unifying factor of all of this is that food is, in the wild, highly energy- and time-consuming to get hold of and consume, since every source of it guards its prize jealously. Therefore, any animal that wants to survive in this tough world must be near-constantly in pursuit of food simply to fulfil all of its life functions, and this is characterised by being perpetually hungry. Hunger is a body’s way of telling us that we should get more food, and in the wild this constant desire for more is kept in check by the difficulty that getting hold of it entails. Similarly, animal bodies try to assuage this desire by being lazy; if something isn’t necessary, then there’s no point wasting valuable energy going after it (since this will mean spending more time going after food to replace lost energy.)

However, in recent history (and a spectacularly short period of time from evolution’s point of view), one particular species called homo sapiens came up with this great idea called civilisation, which basically entailed the pooling and sharing of skill and resources in order to best benefit everyone as a whole. As an evolutionary success story, this is right up there with developing multicellular body structures in terms of being awesome, and it has enabled us humans to live far more comfortable lives than our ancestors did, with correspondingly far greater access to food. This has proved particularly true over the last two centuries, as technological advances in a more democratic society have improved the everyman’s access to food and comfortable living to a truly astounding degree. Unfortunately (from the point of view of our waistline) the instincts of our bodies haven’t quite caught up to the idea that when we want/need food, we can just get food, without all that inconvenient running around after it to get in the way. Not only that, but a lack of pack hierarchy combined with this increased availability means that we can stock up on food until we have eaten our absolute fill if so we wish; the difference between ‘satiated’ and ‘stuffed’ can work out as well over 1000 calories per meal, and over a long period of time it only takes a little more than we should be having every day to start packing on the pounds. Combine that with our natural predilection to laziness meaning that we don’t naturally think of going out for some exercise as fun purely for its own sake, and the fact that we no longer burn calories chasing our food, or in the muscles we build up from said chasing, and we find ourselves consuming a lot more calories than we really should be.

Not only that, but during this time we have also got into the habit of spending a lot of time worrying over the taste and texture of our food. This means that, unlike our ancestors who were just fine with simply jumping on a squirrel and devouring the thing, we have to go through the whole rigmarole of getting stuff out of the fridge, spending two hours slaving away in a kitchen and attempting to cook something vaguely resembling tasty. This wait is not something out bodies enjoy very much, meaning we often turn to ‘quick fixes’ when in need of food; stuff like bread, pasta or ready meals. Whilst we all know how much crap goes into ready meals (which should, as a rule, never be bought by anyone who cares even in the slightest about their health; salt content of those things is insane) and other such ‘quick fixes’, fewer people are aware of the impact a high intake of whole grains can have on our bodies. Stuff like bread and rice only started being eaten by humans a few thousand years ago, as we discovered the benefits of farming and cooking, and whilst they are undoubtedly a good food source (and are very, very difficult to cut from one’s diet whilst still remaining healthy) our bodies have simply not had enough time, evolutionarily speaking, to get used to them. This means they have a tendency to not make us feel as full as their calorie content should suggest, thus meaning that we eat more than our body in fact needs (if you want to feel full whilst not taking in so many calories, protein is the way to go; meat, fish and dairy are great for this).

This is all rather academic, but what does it mean for you if you want to lose a bit of weight? I am no expert on this, but then again neither are most of the people acting as self-proclaimed nutritionists in the general media, and anyway, I don’t have any better ideas for posts. So, look at my next post for my, admittedly basic, advice for anyone trying to make themselves that little bit healthier, especially if you’re trying to work of a few of the pounds built up over this festive season.