Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Suburbs

We live in these places out of necessity, lucky to have them out of the terrible explosion of humanity. But we visit and remember lakes, forests, architecture, cities of wonder, unruly temples, oceans, islands, the ecstasy of nature. We remember nature intimately and forcefully, and we recall lovely or powerful cities with delight at their art. That is why they become the focus of meaning in the afterlife. That is why they are wholly remembered.
-- Louise Erdrich

Friday, October 17, 2014

Alarms and surprises




Paul Kingsnorth's LRB review of This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein and Don't Even Think About It by George Marshall is worth a read.  For example, Klein's determination to make climate change fit into her pre-existing narrative [1] is well highlighted.

But I take issue with the end of the review, which quotes something Daniel Kahneman said to George Marshall — "there is not much hope" — and appears to take this as conclusive.

I think this falls into the trap of another pre-scripted narrative — that of radical pessimism.

Not only do we not know how things will go; we cannot know how things will go.

What we do know is that we have some freedom of action, albeit with tight constraints.

Sure, the future is likely to be hot, extremely bumpy and crowded, but we should not discount surprise altogether, not least significant technological and/or social changes which reshape the landscape of possibilities.

We should not assume, as Kahneman appears to do here, that climate change can only be tackled by lowering people's standard of living. Indeed, the opposite may be true.

"Anything can happen in life, especially nothing" says Michel Houellebecq. He is right on the first point, not so much on the second.



Note [1]: On narratives, see Culture and Climate Change: Narratives edited by Joe Smith, Renata Tyszczuk and Robert Butler (pdf) for which I organised 11 responses by others to the question, "What kind of story is climate change?" and in which I discussed four stories in the "In Conversation" section (also published here).

Friday, September 05, 2014

"Life is something that happens on the edge"


This post contains some additional notes and comments to my review of The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf, which is published here.
I suggested the Telegraph use this photograph with the review because it's striking, of course, but also because the archaea growing in the Silex Spring live at the edge. For significance of that, see below.

Here is an attempt at humour that, wisely, did not make the final edit:
One of my favourite books is The Pooh Perplex. One of my least favourite viruses is Herpes Simplex. So I was intrigued when I first heard the title of this book. What on Earth (or beyond it), I wondered, could be The Copernicus Complex
Copernicus...was wrong.   Among the things that he (and indeed Kepler and Newton) did not know is that, far from being fixed, the Sun itself is moving through space at about 200 kilometres per second, completing a rotation of the galactic centre once every 240  million years or so.

... small differences...can turn out to make all the difference.   Before the edit the second paragraph continued:
 Nature is subtle and “little” things can be clues to much bigger mysteries. And in time even the Kepler's laws of planetary motion (and the laws of motion and gravitation which Isaac Newton developed towards the end of the same century) have proven to be only approximations. An anomaly in the orbit of Mercury supported Einstein's general theory of relativity (1916), which challenged basic assumptions in all physics to date. Further, in the last couple of decades unprecedented computing power has enabled researchers to show that even apparently well-established elliptical paths can actually be far from fixed. In the long run seemingly small perturbations can, and often do, cause planets to careen off course into their host stars or each other or go whizzing off into deep space.
Copernican principle... Anthropic principle...   Contrasting takes  appear in This Will Make You Smarter. P Z Myers recommends the mediocrity principle, and Samel Abbessman the Copnerican principle. But Marcelo Gleiser thinks we are unique. On the 'special' side, Alan Lightman observes:
With the recent work of the Kepler spacecraft, searching for planets favorable for life, we can estimate that only about one millionth of one billionth of 1 percent of the material of the visible universe exists in living form. From a cosmic perspective, we and all life are the exception to the rule.
and Jim Holt argues that:
living in a generic reality that's mediocre, there are nasty bits and nice bits and we could make the nice bits bigger and the nasty bits smaller and that gives us a kind of purpose in life.
Much to enjoy on the way including things like this. Scharf notes the language of orbital dynamics:
Resonances, precessions, librations, osculating elements, apsidal alignments, arguments of pericenter, harmonics, secular perturbations and always the mention of chaos.
I really did enjoy this book but there were moments when I felt it could be shorter with no loss of quality.  For example, do we really need another explanation of Bayes's theorem just to be told that it is ill-advised to draw conclusions when you have a sample size of one?  Perhaps I have just read too much popular science.
Earthlike planets in the Goldilocks zone...are a small minority ...albeit a minority that contains billions!

the cosmo-chaotic principle  this idea is the heart of the book, and I would have liked to have got there sooner and read more about it including, for example, an expansion of this:

Several people who are studying the biological universe have suggested we adopt this way of conceptualizing life, as a phenomenon hovering on the bring of disorder. Michael Storrie-Lombardi – life is something that happens on the edge, wherever that edge appears...life is a collection of phenomena at the boundary between order and chaos. Across that interface we can imagine there is something akin to a voltage difference. Except this biological gradient is multidimensional, an intersection of available energy, order and disorder, and time.
But perhaps that's the next book or paper...
Among books I recommend for further reading are Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings,  The Edge of Infinity by David Deutsch and Weird Life by David Toomey.

Image: A wandering stone in Death Valley. Dennis Flaherty/Alamy via Nature.  Stones like this move about for about one minute in every million.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Superintelligence


I have a review in The Guardian of Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom and A Rough Ride to the Future by James Lovelock. I wasn't sure it would work to pair these books, but it seems to have turned out OK as far as it goes.  Here are a few additional comments and notes.

An interesting piece on Roko's Basilisk. "The combination of messianic ambitions, being convinced of your own infallibility, and a lot of cash never works out well."

Bostrom recently outlined his ideas at the RSA. You can listen to the recording here.

Once we begin to celebrate... this phrase is from Thomas Berry's essay The Ecozoic Era. In the western mystical tradition see also, inter aliaThomas Traherne. A state of awareness that unites elevated cognition and affect might enable what the writer Tim Robinson calls the good step -- though he doubts this is durably achievable for humans: “Can such contradictions be forged into a state of consciousness even fleetingly worthy of its ground?” 


New machines could one day have almost unlimited impact on humanity and the rest of life  See Turing's Cathedral: the Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (2012).
 

killing remotely - already, notes The Economist, America is arguing about whether to give medals to pilotless drones. 

singularity... by around 2030 [discredited] See, for example the resounding meh from Bruce Sterling and this by Alan Winfield. Some analysis suggests consciousness may be intractable to mathematics and the forms of intelligence we identify as most well developed in human societies appear to be dependent on consciousness.


The argument that a superintelligent system will shape the world according to its “preferences” preferences is developed in chapters 5 and 6 of Bostrom's book. The argument that most preferences that such an agent could have will...involve the complete destruction of human life and most plausible human values is developed in chapters 7 and 8.

balance of risks here are the five biggest risks to humanity according to Sandberg et al.

Lovelock thinks...in the very long term...we should welcome-machine-based consciousness.  Sara Imari Walker and Paul Davies speculate that “life forms that ‘go digital’ may be the only systems that survive in the long run and are thus the only remaining product of the processes that led to life.”
For a far out scenario for life in the very very very long term see this.

[superintelligence] will live and experience thousands of times as fast as we can -  here is more from Turing's Cathedral (page 302)
...Organisms that evolve in a digital universe are going to be very different from us. To us, they will appear to be evolving ever faster, but to them, our evolution will appear to have been decelerating at their moment of creation – the way our universe appears to have suddenly begun to cool after the big bang. Ulam's speculations were correct. Our time is become the prototime for something else.
catastrophic risk see It could be worse and this profile by Ross Andersen.

judgement on right or wrong.  Bostrom writes at the beginning of Superintelligence that it is likely that his book is seriously wrong and misleading. He adds, however, that alternative views, including the idea that we can safely ignore the prospect of superintelligence, are more wrong.

There may (or may not) be mileage in thinking about and comparing to scenarios in which superintelligence arrives from outer space. Stephen Hawking is among those who suggest this would probably be a catastrophe for humanity, analagous to the slaughter of indigenous Americans by Europeans. In The Beginning of Infinity (Chapter 9) David Deutsch counters that any civilisation sufficiently advanced to transport itself across interstellar distances would, necessarily, have no need of the raw materials, or anything else, in our solar system. Deutsch continues: “Would we seem like insects to [an advanced alien civilisation]? This can seem plausible only if one forgets that there can only be one type of person: universal explainers and constructors. The idea that there could be beings that are to us as we are to animals is a belief in the supernatural.”

stupidity The first story in Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad is about a machine which its inventor intends to be fantastically intelligent but which turns out to be incorrigibly stupid. And, of course, in Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought calculates that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42. When the receivers of the Ultimate Answer demur, Deep Thought replies that "[he] checked it very thoroughly, and that quite definitely it is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you is that you've never actually known what the question was."


Image: natural stone arch near Þingvellir in Iceland, site of an early Parliament. Jacob Bronowski warned "we must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A distant roar

...At first there weren't any rivers either, the waters ran deep under the ground. All you could hear of them was a distant roar, like that of powerful rapids. They formed a great waterway the shamans called Moto uri u. One day Omama was working in his garden with his son when the boy started to cry because he was thirsty. To quench his son's thirst, Omama made a hole in the ground with a metal bar. When he pulled it out, water leaped up to the sky. It pushed back his child, who had come to drink his fill, and shot all the fish, skates and caimans into the sky. The stream rose so high that another river formed on the sky's back, where the ghosts of our dead live. Then the waters accumulated on the earth and ran off in every direction to form the rivers, streams and lakes of the forest...
from The Falling Sky: Wordsof a Yanomami Shaman by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene


On 4 May I presented a small Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene at the First Athens Science Festival. The event was filmed.  Here is a list of the objects that made the cut:
1. Nautilus shell  -- a beautiful form embodying lessons of time, structure and number from hundreds of millions of years of prehuman history.

2. Woomera --  an Aboriginal Australian spear thrower. The ever improving capability to hurl deadly project projectiles over long distances has been a key factor in human culture.

3. Flute made from a seed -- Amazonian, perhaps Marajoara or Tapajonica. Creating music in harmony with one's environment has also been a vital strand across many cultures and times.

4. Sculptures from the Hamangia Culture, circa 5000 to 4600 BC (photograph). Settled societies with increasingly well developed agriculture supported new cultural forms.

5. Sickle -- one of the oldest and most important agricultural tools. Agricultural societies gave rise to tax systems.

6.  Medieval bestiary (facsimile), England, circa 1300. Knowledge and belief systems change over time. Scientific endeavour cannot be divorced from value.

7. Smallpox virus -- fate of densely settled communities is hugely influenced by pathogens such as this. The elimination of smallpox a major triumph of medical science.

8. Sugar -- central to a early phase of globalisation, first time large amounts of energy transported from one part of the world to another.

9. Stirling engine (1816). The atmospheric engine developed by the blacksmith Thomas Newcomen (1712) started the "Anthropocene proper."  Stirling engine, more efficient, may be part of better way forward.

10. Plant fertilizer. The Haber-Bosch process (1913) facilitated massive growth in agricultural productivity and enables a population of more than 7 billion, for now.

11. International peacekeeper (toy). Increasingly globalized economy is vulnerable to instabilities. Climate change likely to be one among several factors behind some conflicts.

12. What is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger (1944). "Living things embody process far more intricate than atoms or stars." What is our biotech/synbio future?

13. Odroid -- a "supercomputer" in a 8cm cube. Each of its four CPUs can perform more than 2 billion operations per second. It costs less than 50 Euros.

14. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom (2014). Superhuman machine intelligence could be "the best or the worst thing that has ever happened to humanity."

15. Cone shell -- our future is hugely influenced by the fate of the oceans.

16. Nurdles -- the oceans are increasingly filled with tiny plastic particles.

17. Black rhino sculpture, carved from ivory of illegally poached elephant, Zambia, 1980s. We are going through a mass extinction event.

18. Bird Bingo -- what perishes and what thrives in the Anthropocene is uncertain. Robins and other birds appear to be adapting to ionizing radiation around Chernobyl.

19. Air freshener -- what kind of world do we fool ourselves we are living in?
As I said, this was a first cut. I hope to increase/improve the representation of objects in the Cabinet over time. If you have a suggestion please tweet with the tag #AnthropoceneCuriosity

Thanks to Stephen Hicks, Mike Mason, Matt Prescott, Callum Roberts and Veronica Strang for the loan of objects. 

Thanks to Richard Ashcroft, Tom Clarke, Gavin Francis, Tim Harford, Christiana Kazakou, Paul Kingsnorth, Robert Macfarlane, Oliver Morton, Xenophon Moussas, Andrew Simms, Joe Smith, Marina Warner and others for their thoughts.

Image: Hephaestos, the blacksmith god.

Monday, March 31, 2014

"A sense of immanent meaning or significance"


I spent a good part of a day in February with Richard Mabey, and wrote a piece for The Telegraph, which was just published (see note). Here's a passage from Mabey's biography of Flora Thompson that I particularly liked:
The naturalist William Hudson wrote an essay in 1918 about what he called the animism of children. "By animism I do not mean the theory of a soul in nature," he explained, "but the tendency or impulse or instinct, in which all myth originates to animate all things; the projection of ourselves into nature; the sense and apprehension of an intelligence like our own but more powerful in all visible things. It persists and lives in many of us, I imagine, more than we think, or more than we know, especially those born and bred amid rural surroundings...
Hudson reckons he was about eight years old (much the same age as Flora at her most sensually alert) when the raw intensity of his registration of colour, scent and sound -- "the sparkle of sunlight on water, the taste of milk, of fruit, of honey, the smell of dry or moist soil, or herbs and flowers; the mere feel of a blade of grass" -- began to take on a sense of immanent meaning or significance, as if these objects and phenomena contained some impalpable essence beyond their physical reality. They become talismans and totems, sometimes even slightly magical.

Note: The Telegraph version omitted the passages in black below:
Mabey, 73, is in vigorous form for a man recently laid low by a virus that was leaving him quickly fatigued, and loving life in Norfolk. He moved here around a dozen years ago after spending most of his life in the Chilterns, and after an episode of a severe depression which he documents the highly acclaimed memoir Nature Cure (2005). The day before I visit he has been up on the great beaches of the North Norfolk coast. It's a vast place that is always changing, he says, and one he has visited many times over the years since student days. Yesterday birds that are usually there at this time of year were, he says, strangely absent. The Brecks (East Anglia's heathland) and the Broads (its magical waterland) are also a short drive away and frequent destinations...
But the non-human world, so far away from the political nightmares of that time, was never far away for Mabey. While working as an editor at Penguin, he wrote Food for Free (1972), a guide for foragers of wild berries, fungi and shoreline delights. The book was an immediate success and has never been out of print. “It is my pension fund,” he says with a smile, adding that foraging is not the sole preserve of hippies. During the Second War, the government issued an advisory pamphlet while the Vicomte de Maudit stirred phlegmatic British hearts and stomachs with They Can't Ration These!
Mabey's second book, The Unofficial Countryside, helped to define a new, edgier kind of nature writing. Inspired by Adventure Lit Their Star, Kenneth Alsop's 1949 account of how the little ringed plover established itself “in the messy limbo which is neither town nor country (...sand pits, quarries, reservoirs, sewage farms...on clinker among junked car bodies as well as natural river shingle),” The Unofficial Countryside was republished in 2010 with an introduction by Iain Sinclair, doyenne of British psychogeographers, and is an important text for anyone thinking about the “rambunctious garden” or feral future of non-human life under enormous pressure from humanity...

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The unanswerable question


The apparent confusion between the reality of dreams and the reality of waking life... allows writers to use dreams to question reality without having to attempt an impossible imitation of a dreamlike state. In one of his unpublished notebooks, Coleridge famously wrote:
If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awake—Aye! and what then?
So unanswerable is the question, so neatly does it blend the reality of dreams and the reality of waking life, that H. G. Wells, in order to lend verisimilitude to the nightmarish fantasy of The Time Machine, borrowed Coleridge’s unsettling supposition and concluded his story with just such a flower.
-- Alberto Manguel

Monday, February 17, 2014

SF & AI

At a talk at the Oxford Martin School titled Artificial intelligence: examining the interface between brain and machine, I asked Anders Sandberg what role, if any, cultural products, including fiction, could usefully play in thinking about the future.*   He replied:
I quite like Asimov's robot stories because they are beautiful demonstrations that if you try to get your robots to behave according to a fixed set of rules there are going to be conditions that lead to bizarre or stupid behaviours. There are actually good demonstration of why you shouldn't use that sort of programming. But Asimov came up with the rules mostly to have a good framework for this stories. The real problem is when people think they are proposed seriously.

Any individual story, and individual piece of fiction is not going to work. But I think reading a lot of science fiction is actually quite useful to stretch your mind. None of the individual stories in necessarily useful or helpful but they can help you get into mindsets that are very different. If there is one thing science fiction is about it is about dealing with the other – dealing with very different situations and especially beings that function in a very different way. And I think that flexibility is important when we start to reason about it. Ray Kurzweil suggested that we give future AI the golden rule. That way they would learn how to behave themselves. But anyone who has tried to explain the golden rule to an inquisitive 8 year old will realise there are plenty of loopholes in that. And that's a human 8 year old. If this had been an AI 8 year old the loopholes that are obvious to an intelligent machine would be very weird to us. 
I think the money quote in this talk was "We have very little idea how to encode a good values system [into intelligent machines]."

Here is an article titled The Dawn of Artificial Intelligence.  

At Charlie Stross's blog, Ramez Naam argues that The Singularity is Further Than It Appears.



* The video is here. My question is at 1.05.30 and Sandberg's reply at 1.09.15. I mentioned Marvin the Paranoid Android in the preface to my question in reference to his anecdote, at 1.01.00, about a robot he built that got stuck in a pattern of learned helplessness. The transcript above is not exact.

P.S. Maria Popova suggests some reasons why science fiction writers are good at predicting the future.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike

 
I have a review of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert in The Guardian. Here are a few notes and comments on points which I didn't manage to fit in the review or, if I did, got cut:

The hypothesis that the Chicxulub asteroid struck in June or July was mentioned by Jay Melosh on Radiolab's Apocalyptical, December 2013

Total content of the world’s nuclear arsenals  According to nucleardarkness.org in 2009 there were 23,335 weapons with total yield 6,400MT (pdf).

Permian... a few decades   see analysis by Paul Wignall (video) -- initial pulses of CO2 over tens and hundreds to thousands of years, perhaps triggering a rapid release of methane over a few decades

30 to 50% of species functionally extinct by 2050  Sourced here

Additional input of heat...equivalent to...four atomic bomb detonations per second  See here. As I noted in Minotaur, the additional accumulation of heat in the oceans since the 1870s due to human activity is estimated as equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs.

exact and beautiful adaptations   Jacob Bronowski's lovely phrase occurs in the first few pages of The Ascent of Man (1973), about which Simon Critchley recently wrote a rather good piece.


artists    an interview with Maya Lin at Yale360. Tove Jannson had other disasters on her mind in 1946 but this still resonates.

extinctions... see these posts on extinction in The Blog of Barely Imagined Beings

... and new discoveries   not just of species, many of which are verging on extinction even as they are discovered (or rediscovered) but also processes in the Earth system itself of which we previously had little or no idea. So, for example, scientists did not anticipate the ozone hole (as is nicely summarised in this piece by Alice Bell). In the event, the international community was able to largely solve this problem.  The discovery of ocean acidification -- or at least the likely rapidity of its occurrence and the potential dangers it poses -- came as a surprise to many if not all.  Unlike ozone depletion, ocean acidification does not appear to have easy answer. A significant future surprise -- an unknown unknown -- may be relatively easy to solve, as ozone depletion appears to have been, or be wickedly hard, as ocean acidification appears to be.

Amphibians   a spark for Kolbert's book was her article about disappearing frogs in The New Yorker in 2009.

It's all pretty grim...  The Guardian cut the rest of the sentence:
...but reading The Sixth Extinction is like riding in a well-engineered German car. With apologies to Edward Behr, it could be titled Anything Here Nearly Extinct and Have a Scientist with First Class Communication Skills as a Spokesperson?
spend... hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the majority in the dark See, e.g.,
Conservative groups spend up to $1bn a year to fight action on climate change and In the Carbon Wars, Big Oil Is Winning

it almost repels thought   in a review, Kathryn Schulz writes:
It could be that dwelling in geologic time, as you must do to write about extinction, is good for perspective but bad for action; the arc of the actual universe is so long it bends toward fatalism. Human time, by contrast, is good for acting but bad for seeing. It is into the chasm between these two timescales that species are dropping like flies.
hyperobject - an accessible introduction





imaginative thinking   Lee Billings (whose recent book I reviewed here) writes:
The great difficulty in all of this is that no one yet knows how the Anthropocene will unfold. Our dominion over the planet may prove brief in the scope of deep time. Or, the Anthropocene could transform the entire planet into some new state that persists for the remainder of the Earth’s existence. Most wildly, the Anthropocene might surpass the boundaries of Earth itself, becoming interplanetary if our descendants extend our geological footprints to other worlds. Knowing that we have our own age to shape may alter what we do with it, with possible outcomes lying somewhere between our immortal reign and imminent demise. 
But a distinct possibility is a “gone-away world [rather] than birth of anything new...Radioactive fallout as fingerprint”

We need new big stories  I had a sentence before this:
We have long since left behind the “places of many generations” known to our palaeolithic ancestors. We need new big stories.
J L Schellenberg asks Why are our imagined futures so shallow?  

what comes next Chris Thomas is optimistic:
We worry about extinction of species in the era of humans. But at the same time we are seeing an evolutionary surge. The seeds of recovery are already visible.
See also Henry Nichols on rats as big as sheep and Robert Krulwich on pregnant brains

a world utterly transformed by synthetic biology   one place to start thinking about that is here

Is it too much to ask...  I made an assertion here not a question: “It is not absurd to ask...” ...whether we can express our humanity...with compassion... These  words are from the palaeoanthropologist Rick Potts as quoted by Lee Billings (see link above).

George Szirtes recently tweeted
It is salutary to remember that we are walking on egg shells from first day to last and that we're not weightless. We walk between storms.



Images: Priceless or Worthless? (pdf);  Manāfi˓-i al-ḥayavā, or The Benefits of Animals (1297-1300) by Ibn Bakhtīshū (via Persian Painting); and Goya's El Gigante o El Coloso (1814-1818)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dream flight


Prompted by a recommendation here, I am reading The Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky.   He relates that the Eveny of Siberian used to say that reindeer were created by the sky god vky not only to provide food and transport on earth, but also to lift the human soul up to the sun.  There was a ritual each Midsummer day symbolizing the ascent of each person on the back of a winged reindeer. At the highest point the reindeer turned for a while into a crane, a "bird of extreme sacredness"

Recently, a magazine asked me to write a very short piece about the Red-crowned Crane in its Japanese habitat.*  Here it is:
Kushiro marsh, on Japan's northernmost island Hokkaido, is a pocket wilderness four times the size the island of Manhattan. Much is bog and reedbed, but beside the river that winds generously through it there are also thickets of black alder and patches of grassland as well as shallow lakes. Damp and mostly cool, with temperatures hovering below zero in mid winter and seldom exceeding 20º C even at the hottest time of year, the air, which is often foggy, is thick with the sounds and smells of more than a thousand species of plants and animals, including the Hokkaido deer and the white-tailed sea eagle. And this is a last stronghold for the Red-crowned Crane. Some 1,000 individuals, out of the global population of fewer than 3,000 wild birds, live here year round.
Every year, tens of thousands of humans flock to watch the birds dance. As in the adumu, the jumping display of the Maasai people, the cranes spring straight up from a standing start and, aided by their light frame and delicate wing movements, rise above the heads of their fellows as effortlessly as if they were bouncing on the Moon. Returning to Earth, they lift an impossibly long black leg in greeting, then curl the neck over so that the head is lower than the body and walk past their partner. Then the male and female promenade slowly, side by side, occasionally throwing back their heads to emit a loud, rattling kar-r-r-o-o-o. It is a mesmerising spectacle. Scientists will tell you that the dances, which take place throughout the year, are both acts of courtship and reaffirmation of a pair bond, which lasts a lifetime. To all outward appearances, however, they are expressions of pure joy.
The Red-crowned – or tancho, which means red top in Japanese – is one of the largest of the world's fifteen species of Crane. Its wingspan can reach two and half metres (eight feet). On the ground, it is as tall as a grown woman. It can live for forty years in the wild – longer than almost any other bird. Individuals in captivity have been known to reach seventy. Its feathers are brilliant snow white for the most part, but solid black on the neck and the wing secondaries. These extraordinary qualities have earned it a special place in Japanese culture as a token of grace, dignity and longevity. A Thousand Cranes, a fifteen metre long painting completed by Tawaraya Sōtatsu in 1611, is a classic of Japanese art. Later in the 17th century, the haiku poet Matsu Basho depicted the bird as a being at one with its watery environment: “The shallows/A crane’s thighs splashed/ In cool waves.” An Origami instruction manual published in 1798 enshrined the folding of a thousand paper cranes as a spiritual and meditative discipline. The tradition sustained eleven year old Sadako Sussaki as she died of leukaemia ten years after having been a mile from ground zero at Hiroshima, and is said to be posed as test of concentration and endurance for trainee Japanese astronauts.
Fondness for the Red-Crowned Crane as a symbol did not always translate into protection in practice. A craze for their feathers in hats brought them to the brink of extinction by the early 20th century. In the 1920s the resident population of Hokkaido island was thought to have fallen as low as twenty individuals. Amazingly, this remnant held on and, following an exceptionally severe winter in 1952, local farmers and residents, including one Yoshitaka Ito, began to feed the birds regularly. Gradually, the population recovered. In the 1960s the species received official protection as a Special Natural Treasure. A large area of Kushiro Marsh was declared a national park in 1987 with the chief aim of protecting them.
Conservation of their habitat and feeding by hand account for the recovery of the Red-crowned Crane in Hokkaido, at least for now. And these factors, together with the fact that there is almost nowhere else for them to go in Japan explain why they do not migrate. The situation is quite different on the neighbouring margin of the Asian continent, where the species once flourished. From wintering sites on the Chinese and Korean coast, the birds migrated to summer grasslands in the interior as far north as what is now Russian territory in flocks that may have once been in the tens of thousands. Today's flocks seldom number more than a few hundred and are dwindling fast.
New efforts at protection in Russia and in China, where the Crane's cultural resonance probably dates back to at least an association with the immortals of Taoist stories more than two thousand years old, may yet turn a corner in the fate of the Red-crowned Crane on the continent. For the moment, however, continuing urban and agriculture development in their favoured habitats, together with a warmer climate, which the birds do not like, as well as other factors such as disease (which could also strike the inbred Japanese population) could yet do them in. For the moment we can still witness in these amazing birds some of the astonishing beauty produced as if by accident in the Earth's evolutionary past that may yet survive into its future.

* The magazine decided not to publish the piece on the grounds that it does not give a sense of what it feels like to be there. If someone wants to send me so that I can actually find out please don't hesitate to get in touch. ha ha 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Sonic Wonders


I have a review in The Guardian of Sonic Wonderland by Trevor Cox.  Here are some further notes.
Several of the wonders mentioned in Sonic Wonderland can be heard here. Also check out ChrisWatson.net

You can hear the echoes and crunches six miles down in the KTB borehole here.

Plants can detect sound too. See, among others, Daniel Chamovitz, Alva Noe, and a recent article by Michael Pollan, which this bang-on observation:
Darwin was asking us to think of the plant as a kind of upside-down animal, with its main sensory organs and “brain” on the bottom, underground, and its sexual organs on top.
Reveling in manmade spaces...as well as natural wonders. One of the most extraordinary in the book, but not mentioned in my review, is the acoustic signature of the Kukulkan pyramid which, intentionally or not, resembles the falling chirp of the quetzal bird. Cox also recalls a beautiful passage from Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree:
To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

Can we learn to use sound more creatively and wisely, and can we become better listeners?

Among outstanding creative uses of sound in frequently brilliant show RadioLab is a segment using a choir to depict Mantis shrimp vision. On ultrasound in surgery see this. On the modeling of molecular structures, namely proteins, see this. Among many other potential uses of sound may be a way to produce hydrogen for fuel.  In The Emperor of Scent, Chandler Burr invites the reader to consider each molecule as a chord.

While working on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings I blogged on sound a number of times. Among the most striking research I came across suggested that orangutans make wind instruments out of folded vegetation, blowing through it to modulate the sound of their alarm calls. This makes them the only animal apart from humans known to use tools to manipulate sound.  I also wrote about sound at a several points in the book, including in the chapter titled Human:
The Babenzele, a Pygmy tribe in the Congo, combine polyphony (voices singing different melodic lines simultaneously) and polyrhythm (beating more than one rhythm at the same time; for the Babenzele, it may typically be eight, three, nine and twelve beat sections combined in a complex overlapping whole). Many Westerners find this kind of music hard to follow and appreciate. But this initial bewilderment can soon be overcome. A good place to start, says the anthropologist Jerome Lewis, is to listen first to the forest where the Babenzele live. Various animals – monkeys, songbirds and others – make different sounds at different times; combined, these are the sounds of the forest. For the Babenzele, polyphony and polyrhythm are ways of echoing and embodying their world, of learning its secrets. ‘What they are really interested in’, says Lewis, ‘are synergies: technologies of enchantment, where you lose your sense of self and become aware of a greater community.’ When the human voices intertwine just right, he says, a sense of calm euphoria arises, ‘a blissful state in which you have forgotten yourself completely and are lost in the beauty of sound’. [See Note 1]
In the chapter on the Right whale I wrote about the Bearded seals that Cox also describes:
A musician onboard [Max Eastley] used an underwater microphone to listen beneath the waves. He recorded a series of long whistles that started high and descended, very gradually – ever so slowly – right down the scale. The sound was something like a slide-whistle or theremin but richer and sweeter, suspended in a vast, echoing world on whose floor, far below the waves and ice, one could imagine, in the far distance, the rustle and click of crustaceans.
When the sea is in a gentle mood, the play of light on its ever-changing surface can be spellbinding. But sounds heard from beneath the sea are another thing. They make unseen space apparent, rather as raindrops on forest leaves or church bells echoing on a hillside describe landscape for a blind man. On our little boat those whistles shifted the focus of the mind’s eye. No more were we merely bobbing and cutting through obdurate, shifting steel-grey water; we were in a spaceship drifting high above a hidden world
The calls we listened to that day – simple and unchanging in form – were made by a seal. At the time they seemed no less enchanting for that. All things make music with their lives, as John Muir said. Only later did it occur to me that what was really notable about that moment was not presence but absence. Until about three hundred years ago there would have been thousands of whales in these waters, and the call of a seal would have been a small part of the background to their songs and grunts rather than a lone call echoing through emptiness.
From the other end of the world there's this.

Unspeakable Damage and the Animal Orchestra. See, among others, Jeremy Denk on Bernie Krause and this by Krause himself.
Neither nature's song nor man's has ended. As Daniel Barenboim observes, it is not by chance that the Funeral March is the second, not the last movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Basho writes:
The temple bell stops
But I still hear the sound
Coming out of the flowers



Note [1] In a move that might have intrigued Karlheinz Stockhausen, the Jhonda tribe in India sometimes integrate the sounds of short wave radio into their songs.

P.S. There is an nice review of the book by Ian Thomson in The Telegraph. 

P.P.S. Paul Farley remembers and recreates a sonic education in Between The Ears on BBC Radio 3

Images: Source of first unknown; that of Rwenzori plants: Manfred Werner

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Dragon


Nietzsche...warned that the emergence of something, whether an organ, legal institution or a religious ritual is never to be confused with its acquired purposes. “Anything in existence having somehow come about is continually interpreted anew, requisitioned anew, transformed and redirected to a new purpose.” This is a liberating thought, which teaches us to never hold the history of something against its possible applications.
-- from The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal

Image: People of Gog and Magog examining the corpse of dragon by Tousi Salmâni

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Five good books from 2013

A cheerful report (Nuclear war would 'end civilization' with famine, study says) puts me in mind of the first book in a “top five” I was asked to contribute to The Big Issue recently (in the end, The Big Issue published three):

Big Issue Top Five

Never mind vampires and zombies; for true horror read Command and Control, Eric Schlosser's rip-roaring account about the many, near catastrophic accidents with nuclear weapons in the US arsenal throughout the Cold War. In this terrifying picture of a world locked into a dance with total death, a worthy companion to The Dead Hand by David E. Hoffman, Schlosser reminds us that unless we change the system, the potential for unmitigated disaster remains very real.

Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings is a superb account of the search of extraterrestrial life and the people on the front line of that search. It is also one of my top environmental books of the year as, having looked to the heavens, Billings turns his gaze onto the most extraordinary and wonderful life we know – the stuff right here on Earth.

For a book on another burning issue of our times – finance – I am hard pressed to choose between The Bankers' New Clothes by Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig and The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance by Brett Scott, an “urban deep ecologist” who went undercover inside the system. Very different in approach and style, both books are excellent on what's wrong and what to do about it.

Jim Crace's Harvest, which narrowly missed out on the Booker prize, was among the best novels of 2103. The dispossession of ordinary people by the enclosure of common land in late Medieval England was no picnic. Crace paints an utterly compelling picture, with resonances for Boris Johnson's world, in which greed is good and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

Before you write me off as a total Eyore, let me recommend Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes. This history of ballooning from its inception in pre-revolutionary France to an improbable escape from East Germany and beyond is an entrancing, light-weight desert to follow Holmes's magnificent The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.

And finally, if I'm allowed to sneak in a sixth book – and one that was new to me but not to the world – read The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer's meditation on photography (first published in 2005 and reprinted in paperback in 2012). All you need to know is that it is brilliant.

Caspar Henderson is the author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings (Granta)
Looking at the list now, I can think of another five that are at least as worthy of attention.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Hopitutskwa

Hopis are very conscious of the (non-monetary) value of their land, and have persistently refused to accept compensation for losses of parts of it. A 1970s Indian Claims Commission award of $5 million (that has grown with interest to near $50 million today), for the illegal taking of Hopi lands in the 19th century, has never been accepted, and it continues to sit in a bank even while many Hopis live below the poverty line. ‘Never sell your land’ is a key lesson Hopis point to as handed down from their elders. Even though these particular lands have long been formally outside Hopi control, some Hopis believe that if they accept the money, they will have sold their birthright, and the sentient land of their ancestors will never again look favourably upon them. Money, Hopis say, can never be relied on in the long run, while the land will always be there to support us.
-- from The Fire Burns Yet by Peter Whiteley

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Storybook plutocracy

He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths. Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses—always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking—chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk—and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles’ up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public, and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like hormone-fed chickens.
from The Great Unwinding by George Packer, reviewed by Thomas Frank, who says “what Packer calls 'the unwinding' was not an act of nature; it was a work of ideology.”

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The wrong kind of unreadability


International Art English
Alix Rule, a sociologist, and David Levine, an artist, [created] a website called e-flux where all of the art galleries from round the world put their press releases through it. They put it through a language analyser and they came up with a few observations about what they called international art English. “International art English rebukes ordinary English for its lack of nouns. Visual becomes visuality. Global becomes globality. Potential becomes potentiality. And experience of course becomes experienceability.” Now they describe the kind of metaphysical seasickness you get from reading this sort of text, or it sounds all a bit like inexpertly translated French.
From Democracy Has Bad Taste -- Reith Lecture by Grayson Perry

Solitude


Online in The Guardian today: a review of Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings. Here are some notes and links, and my original ending.
Astronomers have mapped the clouds on a planet 1,000 light years away. See here.

Some indications of what is going on in Gregory Laughlin's head can be found here and here.

Since the book was published Sara Seager has received a MacArthur award.

A question facing all of us...Like many who reflect on the prospects for life in the universe, Billings turns back towards Earth with a heightened sense of how marvelous life on this planet is, and how worthy of attention and care.  Perhaps this turn needs a name if it doesn't already have one.  It is not the opposite of a Copernican turn (in which, discovering the Earth to be just a small planet orbiting a star rather than the centre of the universe we "downgrade" its importance) but a necessary transformation or extension of it.

David Grinspoon writes that we need to search for planetary intelligence, not intelligent life.

an interview last year available here.
See also this Barely Imagined Beings post from earlier in the year.
David Deutsch stresses that...our ignorance is still infinite. Deutsch also suggests that this means there will never be an end of new frontiers. Paul Gilster has written No scientific era has has succeeded in imagining its successor...We have no analogues in our experience for what advanced [interstellar] cultures might create.
My review originally ended like this:
...Mr Palomar returns from his reverie to the normal run of life only to find that he is as vulnerable to muddle, hesitation, blunders and anguish as ever before. Better, and maybe more attainable than it seems, is the state Thoreau experienced when he wrote “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is...I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.”

A poet whose name translates from Chinese as Summit-Gate didn't even need words. Taking refuge from the madness and grief of her times in a small house on windy ridge line, she would collect dry leaves every autumn, selecting them for their delightful and evocative shapes, and store them in special boxes on bookshelves in her library. After she had filled all the shelves, Summit-Gate would wait for the first snowfall and then release the leaves, one at a time, to tumble, skid and scratch across the snow before soaring into emptiness.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Fantastical or monstrous beings

Douglas Heaven has an interesting article on a phenomenon observed by the psychologist Giovanni Caputo, in which staring fixedly at a reflection of one's own face in a darkened room gives rise to weird and disturbing distortions and spectres.
"Usually, after about 1 minute of mirror-gazing, the eyes start to move or shine, the mouth opens, or the nose becomes very large," [Caputo] says. "If you continue to gaze there are very big changes, until completely new faces appear." And it's not just human faces that are seen – some report seeing animals and others fantastical or monstrous beings. 
Perhaps, as the brain struggles to make sense of what it is seeing in the dim light, it pulls scraps from our memory to make up for our poor perception – perhaps patching together a “photo fit” of different features so that it begins to look like another person.

I'm reminded of something referred to here: an experience Jorge Luis Borges describes in a lecture  in 1977 -- recurring nightmares which, like much of his fictional output, feature labyrinths and mirrors. In the most terrible of all, he sees himself reflected in a mirror but the reflection is wearing a mask such as he had feared greatly in childhood. “I am afraid to pull the mask off, afraid to see my real face, which I imagine to be hideous. There may be leprosy or evil or something more terrible than anything I am capable of imagining.”

A shadowed lesson of the whole world

This, from Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne, is printed at the front of the Schirmer's Library edition of The Goldberg Variations:
There is something in it of divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole world, and creatures of God; such a melody to the ear, as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief, it is a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ears of God.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Minotaur


I submitted a piece to Comment is Free at The Guardian. They didn't take it. Here it is.

Into the Labyrinth

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges has many monsters. Among them is the Minotaur, half bull and half man, who is born of the furious passion of Pasiphae, Queen of Crete, for a white bull that Neptune had brought out of the sea. Daedalus, the engineer and craftsman who invented the artifice that carried the Queen's unnatural desires to gratification, builds a labyrinth to hide her monstrous son. But the consequences of her act cannot be confined. The Minotaur feeds on human flesh and every year seven young men and seven maidens must be thrown into its lair.

The relevance of this old myth to anthropogenic climate change and the new [27 September 2013] report from Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is not obvious. The IPCC report is the best effort of the international scientific community to summarise current understanding of the complex phenomena involved. Like all such endeavours, it is necessarily provisional and imperfect. But, notwithstanding the distortions and lies manufactured and propagated by the fossil fuel lobby and its friends, it is a small triumph of cooperation and the rational method that are hallmarks of the Enlightenment and progressive thought. It may even, in combination with much else, help deliver effective responses to one of the greatest challenges any generation has faced.

Ancient myths, by contrast, resonate with our emotions and the associative parts of our minds, but their meanings are often slippery and can disappear if we try to confront them directly. They seldom offer clear markers as to what to do. But myths that have endured are still with us for good reason. They contain profound truths about the human condition. They allow us to inhabit alternative worlds or forgotten corners of experience. And they are open to divergent, inconclusive interpretations.

You can see this in Pablo Picasso's work. In Minotauromachy, etched in March 1935 some fifteen months before Spain waded into the bloody nightmare of civil war, a terrifying figure with the head of a bull and the body of a massively powerful man has gored open a horse which carries a bare-breasted and unconscious or dying torera (a female bullfighter) on its back. A Christ-like figure flees up a ladder while from a window onlookers do nothing. Only a young girl, holding a bunch of flowers and a candle lit against the darkness, stands in the monster's path. Elements of this etching prefigure the famous 1937 painting Guernica. But at the same time that he created Minotauromachy, Picasso was also celebrating the Minotaur in a series we know as the Vollard Suite in which the hybrid beast embodies disruptive male sexuality, and even vulnerability and tenderness.

The relevance to manmade climate change is that even when things look grim we cannot know for sure how they will turn out. This is not because the science is faulty but because in science and human affairs uncertainty is inevitable. Climate science can only assign a range of probable outcomes under a given scenario such as the doubling of atmospheric concentrations of CO2. Human behaviour, which may result in concentrations significantly higher or lower than that, is much harder to predict.

The IPCC report estimates that the global average temperature is likely to rise by between 1 and 4 ºC [CHECK] for a doubling of CO2. Even at the lower end of these projections of what is known as climate sensitivity, we face a massive risk management challenge. Already, before the change has kicked in, we are seeing extreme weather events and rapid regional warming that suggest more formidable challenges ahead. (Climate change may be a factor behind the  conflict in Syria: according to the UN, two to three million of Syria’s ten million rural inhabitants were reduced to extreme poverty by an exceptionally severe drought between 2006 and 2010, with large-scale anger and unrest a result.) And towards the upper end of the IPCC range, which the report deems no less probable, the prospects are far more disturbing.

Moreover, there is evidence that assumptions on climate sensitivity made in the latest IPCC report underestimate the role of some amplifying feedbacks that intensify climate impacts. In other words, reality may be vastly more disruptive than the IPCC suggests. Paul Wignall, professor of paleoenvironments at Leeds University, reckons the current rate of change is a good match for the beginning of the end Permian extinction 251 million years ago when the temperature rose by around 6ºC and 95% of species died. If this sounds almost incredible consider that the additional accumulation of heat in the oceans since the 1870s due to human activity is equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs. Half of that energy has been added since 1970 at an average rate of about 4 atomic bomb detonations per second. “The climate system is an angry beast,” observed the distinguished scientist Wally Broecker in 2008, “and we are poking it with a sharp stick.”

The world in which we evolved is filled with almost endless forms of life most beautiful and most wonderful: beings so astonishing in their variety and sophistication that, for all our science and ingenuity to date, we have still barely imagined them. In the words of the science writer David Biello, “butterflies hold answers to questions we haven’t even thought to ask yet.” Another mass extinction will destroy huge resources of knowledge and wonder.

Life has survived at least five mass extinctions in the distant past. Each one opened opportunities for marvelous new forms to evolve. The rise of the mammals after the demise of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago is the best known example. But recovery – in our case the evolution of a world with great whales, stunning coral reefs, more than ten thousands bird species, and ourselves – took millions of years.  De-extinction technology may resurrect a few iconic species, and perhaps more, but it is no substitute for responsible stewardship of the fantastic complexity and beauty we already have.

Almost everything depends on what we do now. Theseus had to be brave when he entered the labyrinth to slay the Minotaur but bravery alone was not enough. He also needed the technical means to escape – a thread provided on the advice of Daedalus by prince Ariadne. In our time, a vision for justice is essential but so is technical advance. Rational people can negotiate over priorities but they are likely to include radical transformations in the energy system such as the delivery of PV at less than a dollar a Watt, a new vision for land use and ecosystem management. Perhaps we will need to get serious about a plan B: geo-engineering.

In one of his more pessimistic moments Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “I fear that the animals see man as a being who in a most dangerous manner has lost his animal common sense – as the insane animal, the laughing animal, the weeping animal, the miserable animal.” It is up to us to create a different reality. Regarding situations that looked hopeless, the economist Albert O. Hirschman talked of “possibilism” – a state of mind that allows one to discover paths that “however narrow, [lead] to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone.”  Hope, not least in defiance of the terrific power of vested interests and the dismal influence of climate contrarians, is our greatest resource.


Monday, September 02, 2013

The good old days

From report to Parliament in 1842 (quoted here):
Collieries.—“I wish to call the attention of the Board to the pits about Brampton. The seams are so thin that several of them have only two feet headway to all the working. They are worked altogether by boys from eight to twelve years of age, on all-fours, with a dog belt and chain. The passages being neither ironed nor wooded, and often an inch or two thick with mud. In Mr. Barnes’ pit these poor boys have to drag the barrows with one hundred weight of coal or slack sixty times a day sixty yards, and the empty barrows back, without once straightening their backs, unless they choose to stand under the shaft, and run the risk of having their heads broken by a falling coal.”—Report on Mines, 1842, p. 71. “In Shropshire the seams are no more than eighteen or twenty inches.”—Ibid., p.67. “At the Booth pit,” says Mr. Scriven, “I walked, rode, and crept eighteen hundred yards to one of the nearest faces.”—Ibid. “Chokedamp, firedamp, wild fire, sulphur, and water, at all times menace instant death to the laborers in these mines.” “Robert North, aged 16: Went into the pit at seven years of age, to fill up skips. I drew about twelve months. When I drew by the girdle and chain my skin was broken, and the blood ran down. I durst not say anything. If we said anything, the butty, and the reeve, who works under him, would take a stick and beat us.”—Ibid. “The usual punishment for theft is to place the culprit’s head between the legs of one of the biggest boys, and each boy in the pit—sometimes there are twenty—inflicts twelve lashes on the back and rump with a cat.”—Ibid. “Instances occur in which children are taken into these mines to work as early as four years of age, sometimes at five, not unfrequently at six and seven, while from eight to nine is the ordinary age at which these employments commence.”—Ibid. “The wages paid at these mines is from two dollars fifty cents to seven dollars fifty cents per month for laborers, according to age and ability, and out of this they must support themselves. They work twelve hours a day.”-Ibid.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Review of Birds and people

Nunivak man with raven maskette

I've written a review of Birds and People by Mark Cocker for the September edition The Literary Review. The text is online here.

Man came to awareness surrounded by birds.
                                                          — Graeme Gibbons

From Barely Imagined Beings: Evolving with a Mountain

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Surrounded by more or less ghostly objects


This is the second of two posts relating to The Death and Life of the Frontier, an article published in the first quarterly (print) edition of Nautilus. It expands on a couple of points in the last paragraphs of the article, marked here in bold. The first set of notes is here. An excerpt from the article is online here.

We should not dismiss our potential to innovate more intelligently and benignly in the future than has been the case in the past. 

In Arctic Dreams Barry Lopez reports a reflection from an archaeologist on the legacy of long-gone indigenous peoples of the high North: “Everything we are is in our spirit.”  Some poets in our own culture have said as much. Henry David Thoreau wrote:
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. 
Richard Jefferies wrote
Time has never existed, and never will; it is a purely artificial arrangement. It is eternity now, it always was eternity, and always will be.
Dreams can contain much darkness as well as light. Lopez describes a find at an Ipiutak burial site at Point Hope, Alaska:
A small carved caribou hoof was protruding on a shaft from the pelvic region of a human skeleton. Clearing away more earth revealed that this long ivory shaft penetrated the entire vertebral column and emerged in the skull, where it curved forward in space where the mouth would have been. It terminated in a miniature hand, opened in supplication. 

With our vastly greater knowledge and capabilities, what else might we yet conceive?

The physicist David Deutsch suggests that the human capacity to explain the fabric of reality may one day give our successors the ability to extend the duration of a main sequence star such as the Sun. This is a staggering thought, perhaps a hopeful one. One thinks of Thoreau at his happiest, writing next to his beloved “ Earth's eye,” Walden Pond:
These may be but the spring months in the life of the race...The sun is but a morning star.
But there are other, bleaker possibilities. Stanisław Lem warns:
Someone who is capable of switching stars on and off will also be capable of annihilating whole inhabited globes, transforming himself in this way...[into] a criminal on a cosmic scale.
Wade Davies is more hopeful:
The path we have taken is not the only one available. Our destiny...is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say that we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet.
Jonathan Bate writes:
The dream of deep ecology will never be realised here on Earth, but our survival as a species may be dependent on our capacity to dream it in the work of our imagination.

Image: Figures in Red Boat by Peter Doig

Elephants all the way around


The Erdapfel: Sail west from Lisbon and your landfall is in Japan

Here is the first of two sets of notes relating to The Death and Life of the Frontier: a Voyage to the Limits of the Knowable, an article I've written for the first quarterly (print edition) of Nautilus. An excerpt from the article is online here. The second set of notes is here.

Aristotle noted... [that] constellations on the southern horizon rise in the sky as you travel south.
He added, drily, that the Earth must be a sphere “of no great size, for otherwise the effect of so slight a change of place would not be quickly apparent” in the position of the constellations. The first known attempt to measure the Earth's circumference was undertaken by Eratosthenes in around 240 BC. He compared the angle of a shadow cast at noon in Alexandria to one made simultaneously at Syene (modern day Aswan) nearly 500 miles due south and derived an estimate accurate to within 2% of the actual value, 24,860 miles. 

The Erdapfel...a terrestrial globe made in Nuremberg in 1492
This was not the first globe to be made since the fall of classical civilization. The Persian-speaking astronomer Jamal ad-Din had presented one to Kublai Khan in Beijing in 1267. But it is the oldest to survive. 

Prehistory’s almost unimaginably vast contours.
A sense that the world is massively old is not new. Aristotle believed it was eternal. “Where the dust blows through these heights there once shone a silent sea,” writes [wrote] a Chinese poet of the first millennium. Hindu cosmology teaches that the universe and the world are created, destroyed and re-created in cycles of about 4.32 billion years. But such accounts were intuitive and impressionistic. 

Darwin's vision...was not, in the end bleak.
In addition to being an intellectual triumph the theory of natural selection was grounded in compassion and humility.  The full quote from Darwin, with emphasis added here, is:
let man visit Ouranoutang in domestication, hear its expressive whine, see its intelligence when spoken to; as if it understands every word said; see its affection to those it knew; see its passion & rage, sulkiness, & very actions of despair; ... and then let him boast of his proud pre-eminence ... Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.
Darwin's theory has been applied with success in fields as diverse as drug design and artificial intelligence. There is even a hypothesis of cosmological natural selection, in which black holes (surely one of the most imposing frontiers we know of in the universe) are mechanisms of reproduction for multiple universes within a multiverse.

Chimpanzees grieve for non-related individuals.
[Maggie Koerth-Baker writes]: Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, is convinced that an ape death he witnessed gave him a glimpse into something significant, especially because the animals acted so thoroughly against their own interests. “As a person, I can tell you what it feels like to watch,” says Hare, who describes the experience as emotionally intense. “As a scientist, though, you’re supposed to rely on ideas that can be tested and falsified. And how could you possibly do an ethical experiment here?” Hare studies how chimpanzees and bonobos solve problems, and in 2007 he happened to see one of our closest evolutionary relatives die. He was at a bonobo orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo when Lipopo, a newcomer to the orphanage, died unexpectedly from pneumonia. Although the other bonobos could have moved away from his body and traveled anywhere in their very large, heavily forested enclosure, they chose to stay and groom Lipopo’s corpse. When their caretakers arrived to remove the body, the vigil morphed into a tense standoff. 
In the video Hare took, Mimi, the group’s alpha female, stands guard over Lipopo’s body. When the caretakers try to push the corpse out of the enclosure with long poles, Mimi fights them, viciously. She grabs the poles with both hands, wrenching them away from Lipopo. She calls to other bonobos, who help her fend off the humans from two sides. Even when the vet arrives with a tranquilizer gun, Mimi stands her ground, her mouth open wide in a scream that’s inaudible in the silent film. Mimi wasn’t related to Lipopo. In fact, she barely knew him, Hare told me. But Mimi was willing to risk an encounter with a gun to protect the body of a mere acquaintance. “That’s why I started to cry,” Hare said. “I don’t know why she did it.” 

Microbes in stupendous abundance.
Micro-organisms may have played a role in keeping conditions on Earth favourable for the continued flourising of life almost since inception. The geologist Minik Rosing suggests that early in the planet's history they accelerated the geological process that led to the formation of Earth's continents through the production of lubricating clays. This allowed for the steady and continuous churning of minerals useful to life from within the Earth's mantle.

Who would object to 100 or even 120 years of healthy...life?
See (e.g.) The Case for Enhancing People by Ronald Bailey. The Pew Research Centre found that when asked whether they, personally, would choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live to be 120 or more, a majority of U.S. adults (56%) say “no.” But roughly two-thirds (68%) think that most other people would. 

The Singularity
Ray Kurzweil sees no barrier to the supposedly imminent emergence of intelligence vastly superior to humans via technological means – Kurzweil believes “we will become the machines” and that this is a good thing. Consciousness, uploaded onto computers, will become eternal. Lost loved ones will even be restored to life in a computer simulation that seems just as real to those within it as our world does to us.

There is any number of things one could say about Kurzweil's vision. Here are three. First, his vision may be at least as, if not more probable than the world envisaged in the Terminator and Matrix films in which hostile intelligent machines take over. Although robots are likely to become increasingly able to learn and evolve, it is hard to see how genuine autonomy will come to pass. Systems that look autonomous will probably be the creatures of states, corporations or other actors including criminals for a long time to come.

Second, most scientists who study the human brain are deeply sceptical of Kurzweil's claims about the feasibility of uploading one, at least for the next several decades. David J Linden, professor of neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, writes that “Kurzweil [confuses] biological data collection with biological insight. The unstated but crucial foundation of [his] scenario requires that at some point in the 2020s a miracle will occur...” Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at N.Y.U., says “Kurzweil doesn’t know neuroscience as well as he knows artificial intelligence [which is not well], and doesn’t understand psychology as well as either.”

Third, despite these objections there is a chance, and in my view a good one, that something with a passing resemblance to what has unkindly been called the rapture for nerds will eventually come to pass, albeit not within several decades. As the engineer and futurist Roy Amara famously said, “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” If computers go on getting faster and better at learning – something that is likely to happen even without the development of quantum computing (which really would be a game changer) – and if the right conditions and selective pressures are in place, then the sky's the limit. 

The Anthropocene is likely to be a time of rapid and unpredictable environmental change.
Among the triggers of change may be runaway global warming via mechanisms such as a rapid release of arctic methane.

end Permian
I asked Paul Wignall about recent press reports (here and here) suggesting a meteorite played a role. He replied:
Ah yes I guess [this] paper, just available online, is what is attracting all the media attention. The authors still have the problem that the crater is too old, allowing for the error bars they can special plead that it could just about be the right age. Other problems are that gas hydrates (their preferred source of methane) are not usually found in such large amounts in shallow basins, they are more typical of deep continental slopes. Again special pleading could just possibly make an exception. And would a meteorite impact cause fracking? Who knows but I like the convergence of past and present worries!

Perhaps, one day, an abundance of elephants in the most surprising places will be part of our world again.
See Yadvinder Malhi on the legacy of lost giants and Gomphotheres of the Rambunctious Garden. If Malhi is right restoring elephants could increase the resilience of rainforests.  (Also, here's the reference for "It's the Ecology Stupid")

Biodiversity loss is a systemic phenomenon 
Bill Adams quotes this line from a paper published in Nature in 2013 which quantified the ways in which threats to 25,000 endangered species on IUCN Red Lists were linked to the production of 15,000 commodities in 187 countries via more than 5 billion supply chains. Adams continues: 
The economic machine that consumes biodiverse habitat has its foundation in the world economy. As that economy grows, demands made on the biosphere increase. Particularly in the rapidly industrialising countries of Asia, the standard economic growth model is having some success in helping people to escape poverty, and others to become rich. This is admirable but also, for a conservationist, very disturbing. Global consumption of raw material and energy (and production of wastes) has risen inexorably. Poor countries pursue the model of the rich, and poor people, understandably, dream of becoming wealthy. The problem is that biodiversity shrinks before the combined onslaught of people and wealth. The Western model of consumption is unsustainable for any but a few, and the model has to change in rich and poor countries. Focusing conservation efforts on residual pristine landscapes is a way to treat symptoms not causes. It is displacement behaviour.  the real issues are elsewhere.

What else might we yet conceive? 
Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation.

You must change your life. Peter Solterdijk writes:
Whoever has not been seized by the concept of the oversized does not belong to the species Homo sapiens. The first hunter in the savannah was already a member; he raised his head and understood that the horizon is not a protective boundary, but rather a gate for the gods and dangers to enter.