Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Wikileaks etc

Naomi Wolf made a good case in her J'accuse, but it's worth paying attention to Jaron Larnier on the hazards of nerd supremacy too.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Black propaganda

It would be nice to think that in a nation that still had some sense of decency, Glenn Beck would not be able to show his face in public after the manipulations of the kind described here

Ocean acidification: the truth

The UK ocean acidification research programme responds here to a misleading article by Matt Ridley.

Hat tip: DS

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The hippo and the turtle

The notion that the British army is in Afghanistan to seek revenge for 19th century defeats is of course absolutely grotesque, but that is not the point. The point is that ordinary Afghans do indeed believe this – and the British security establishment ought to have known that they would. That we did not know this is a shattering illustration of the fact that while British policy is in the end powered by sublimated imperial nostalgia, most of the really valuable practical memories and lessons of empire have long since been forgotten.
-- Anatol Lieven.

John Lanchester notes a key factor in British involvement in the most recent Afghan war:
After Kosovo, Blair’s world view solidified. He became more certain about his judgments, and more willing to use force—as he did, again successfully, and again without a U.N. mandate, in Sierra Leone, where, in 2000, British troops imposed a ceasefire on a bloody civil war. Given this growing sense of conviction—of the need to take a “fronting-up, out-there leadership position and stake it all on winning”—it was no surprise that Blair was strongly on the side of going to war in Afghanistan and then, much more controversially, in Iraq.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

A river without us

Kaziranga National Park protects a few hundred square miles of the Brahmaputra River's natural floodplain. "Lush grasses grow up to 20 feet high, making the park a paradise for grazing animals and their predators."

Here, by contrast, is the Indus north of Sukkur in Pakistan. The river is the basis for the world's largest canal irrigation system. Around 20 million people have been made homeless by the floods.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Stating the obvious

David Kilcullen says governments have won about 80% of counterinsurgencies when one of the following was true: they were fighting on their own territory or they had a well organized local ally.

P.S. 1 Sep: George Packer notes:
For almost all purposes, Iraq has no government. Almost six months after national elections, the country’s politicians remain unable to compromise and cut a deal, showing the persistent lack of maturity and vision that has earned the political class the justifiable contempt of the Iraqi public.

A billionaire jumps the shark

Last month Steve Schwarzman, the billionaire chairman of the Blackstone Group, the private equity giant, compared proposals to end tax loopholes for hedge fund managers with the Nazi invasion of Poland.
-- Paul Krugman

Sunday, August 29, 2010


I've just finished Zeitoun. It does the job. Eggers and his eponymous Zeitoun discovered 'something broken' in America during his imprisonment without trial. A fragment of the cultural context in which that imprisonment occured comes in an interview with Robert King who spent 29 years in solitary confinement, and for more on the implications of that see Atul Gawande on solitary as torture.


I make no judgement here on Timothy Taylor's suggestion that man is an artificial ape, but he is probably on target with regard to memes:
memes simply don't make sense. And the reason is that when you look at an artificial object like a chair, for instance, there is no central rule that defines it. There is no way to draw a definite philosophical boundary and say, here are the characteristics that are both necessary and sufficient to define a chair. The chair's meaning is linguistic and symbolic - a chair is a chair because we intend for it to be a chair and we use it in a particular way. Artificial objects are defined in terms of intention and entailment - and that makes artificial things very different from biological things.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Older than life on Earth

A reservoir of rock that remained intact for nearly the entire history of Earth could tell us about how our planet was built. Its chemistry hints that Earth's building blocks may have had a rough time of it, losing their skins before they could unite.

The rocks were thrown up by volcanoes in the Arctic wastes of Baffin Island and Greenland only 62 million years ago, but it seems they came from a store of rock in the mantle that formed 4.5 billion years ago – just after Earth formed.
-- report

At the edge

The Inughuits thought they were the world's only inhabitants until an expedition led by the Scottish explorer John Ross came across them in 1818.
-- report

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The 'special' junior partnership

Private Eye (No 1268) recently made fun of David Cameron's claim that Britain was the junior partner to the United States in 1940 when it was fighting the Nazis.

If Cameron wants to brush up on his history he could do worse than read Brian Urquhart's review of Max Hasting's new book:
In 1940 the United States [which did not enter the war until 11 December 1941] was by no means wholly sympathetic to British war requirements, and a large majority of the people and in the Congress were determined to stay out of another European war...Of the disastrous year 1941, Hastings writes:

American assistance fell far short of British hopes, and Churchill not infrequently vented his bitterness at the ruthlessness of the financial terms extracted by Washington for supplies. "As far as I can make out", he wrote to Chancellor [of the Exchequer] Kingsley Wood, "we are not only to be skinned, but flayed to the bone."

St Margaret's Bay

The sprint of folly

Goldberg, after conducting dozens of interviews with senior members of Israel's national security establishment as well as many top personalities in the Obama White House, concludes in his must-read piece that the likelihood of Israel unilaterally bombing Iran to curtail a potential nuclear weapon breakout capacity is north of 50-50.

...He tallies the consequences [of an Israeli attack on Iran] as:

sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel's only meaningful ally, of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel's conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper of nations.
-- Steve Clemons

Goldberg concludes with unconvincing bromides about win-win for the U.S. and Israel. Also instructive are his blindspots. Justice for the Palestinians is one. Goldberg, he points out, fails to mention that UAE ambassador and others strongly emphasized that the most important radicalizer in the region is the unresolved Palestine-Israel dispute. Another issue, though, is that Goldberg writes as if the only significant players in this game for domination of greater west Asia were Israel (U.S.) and Iran, with the Arabs as worried bystanders. No mention of China or others.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Monday, August 09, 2010

The politics of Jeremy Clarkson

Road safety cameras have played a significant part in a 45% reduction in road fatalities in Britain in the last decade, says Mick Giannasi.

The government says their abolition is an attempt to end 'the war on the motorist.' But the savings are relatively trivial and the real reason is obviously cheap populism.

Cheap, that is, unless you happen to be on the receiving end of a speeding car.

A suggestion: for every death additional to the number that occurred in the last year in which cameras operated, a greeting card expressing congratulations should be sent to Jeremy Clarkson. This could start in Oxfordshire, the first county to switch off its cameras and the county where Clarkson lives. Oxfordshire had 30 fatalities in 2009.

Computation and the tragedy of cognition

In an op ed calling for separation of computer science and religion, Jaron Lanier writes:
What bothers me most...is that by allowing artificial intelligence to reshape our concept of personhood, we are leaving ourselves open to the flipside: we think of people more and more as computers, just as we think of computers as people.

In one recent example, Clay Shirky...has suggested that when people engage in seemingly trivial activities like “re-Tweeting,” relaying on Twitter a short message from someone else, something non-trivial — real thought and creativity — takes place on a grand scale, within a global brain. That is, people perform machine-like activity, copying and relaying information; the Internet, as a whole, is claimed to perform the creative thinking, the problem solving, the connection making. This is a devaluation of human thought.
There is a parallel to Shirky's argument in Dawkins's Selfish Gene (although Shirky's reductionism is 'upwards', perhaps, instead of 'downwards'):
Now [genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.
The physiologist Denis Noble argues in The Music of Life that this passage is largely a rhetorical trick not a statement of empirical fact and can be rewritten with equal validity as:
Now [genes] are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.
Lanier thinks that computer scientists tend towards cultism because they are "as terrified by the human condition as anyone else." But what is really needed, he says, is to get on with the everyday tasks of making life better by creating new technologies that serve people.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

A kill

She had a blog.

The obits report:
Dr. Woo, a Briton, had a similarly adventurous spirit. At 16, she trained as a contemporary dancer and then worked as a wing-walker for a flying circus, performing stunts while strapped to the upper wing of a biplane, dressed in a scarlet jumpsuit.

At 22, she entered medical school and eventually volunteered for missions in South Africa, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Trinidad and Tobago. Two years ago, after visiting a friend in Kabul, she quit her $150,000-a-year job to move there. There, she kept pet tortoises and found time for a fashion show to raise money for charity. She was just weeks from her wedding.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Our cousins in the East

Francis Spufford expands on the observation by Stephen Kotkin that the Soviet Union was "booby-trapped with idealism":
The 1961 party congress adopted the imminent end of all scarcity as its official programme, thus making possibly the rashest and most falsifiable promise in the entire politics of the 20th century. An act so foolish can only be explained through idealism: Khrushchev's own, for he was a man whose troubled relationship with his conscience required a happy ending to give him retrospective absolution, but also the idealism coded despite everything into the structure of the régime. It was the same heedless true-belief at work which would manifest itself a generation later in Gorbachev...

...Alongside our well-documented, well-founded knowledge that Soviet history was a tragedy ought to run a sense of it, too, as a comedy...But this shouldn't be the kind of comedy in which we laugh from a position of comfy security at the fools over there; and not just because the ascent of the Soviet piano was achieved at a monstrous price in human suffering. It should be the comedy of recognition we register, at this point in the early 21st century, when we're in mid-pratfall ourselves.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Beyond What is the What

Girls in south Sudan are still more likely to die in childbirth than they are to finish primary school.
-- Achak Deng and Dave Eggers build a school

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


We knew that the Afghan security forces were a disaster, even after we had spent twenty-seven billion dollars to train them. But knowing specifically what happened to a sixteen-year-old girl and to the man who stood up to her alleged rapist—and knowing that her attacker may have been in a position to do what he did because he was backed by our troops and our money—is different.
-- Amy Davidson

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Bravery and bigotry

Being human, she must have been afraid of something, but one never found out what it was.
-- Roman Krznaric recalls Kipling's observation about Mary Kingsley.

Worse than a crime

According to a U.S. Navy cargo manifest obtained by the Sunday Herald (Glasgow), the substantial military equipment Obama has dispatched includes 387 "bunker busters" used for blasting hardened underground structures. Planning for these "massive ordnance penetrators," the most powerful bombs in the arsenal short of nuclear weapons, was initiated in the Bush administration, but languished. On taking office, Obama immediately accelerated the plans and they are to be deployed several years ahead of schedule, aiming specifically at Iran.

"They are gearing up totally for the destruction of Iran," according to Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London. "US bombers and long range missiles are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours," he said. "The firepower of US forces has quadrupled since 2003," accelerating under Obama.

The Arab press reports that an American fleet (with an Israeli vessel) passed through the Suez Canal on the way to the Persian Gulf, where its task is "to implement the sanctions against Iran and supervise the ships going to and from Iran." British and Israeli media report that Saudi Arabia is providing a corridor for Israeli bombing of Iran (denied by Saudi Arabia). On his return from Afghanistan to reassure NATO allies that the U.S. will stay the course after the replacement of General McChrystal by his superior, General Petraeus, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen visited Israel to meet IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and senior military staff, along with intelligence and planning units, continuing the annual strategic dialogue between Israel and the U.S. The meeting focused "on the preparation by both Israel and the U.S. for the possibility of a nuclear capable Iran," according to Haaretz, which reports further that Mullen emphasized that, "I always try to see challenges from [the] Israeli perspective." Mullen and Ashkenazi are in regular contact on a secure line.
-- Noam Chomksy.

Maybe he is right, but ever since George W. Bush was reinstalled in 2004 I have quite often thought an attack on Iran was imminent only to see that proved wrong each time.

Can they really be so monumentally foolish? If the U.S. does attack it will look as if the American government-military complex is subaltern to extremists in Israel and to AIPAC.

P.S. 4 Aug: Gwynne Dyer says the chances of a U.S. attack on Iran are practically zero.

P.S. 5 Aug: There's a chance sanctions are working, says Andrew Sullivan.

P.S. 7 Aug: David Bromwich on one more war

Appetite, an universal wolf

Elizbeth Kolbert has a couple of useful reviews here and here.

Good to see the acknowledgment in the second of An Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts

Friday, July 30, 2010

'Severely disquieting'

'A century of phytoplankton decline suggests that ocean ecosystems are in peril.'

Tom Goreau says:
This report is correct, but as usual it is not new. In some of our papers on global satellite sea surface temperature trends published 5 years ago we point out that the places in the ocean we have identified that are warming faster than average are also the places where phytoplankton chlorophyll are decreasing, due to the thicker warm surface layer getting so thick and buoyant that upwelling of nutrients is being blocked, indeed we identified major fisheries regions where the upwelling has stopped and the fisheries are collapsing from the bottom up. There are also much smaller areas where the phytoplankton are increasing, and those are remote areas where the wind speed has increased, but the gains in those places are far less than the losses. This problem will increase with time.
P.S. 2 Aug: a colleague refers to SAHFOS which carries a link to a summary of recent research into the question of whether climate change and biodiversity of marine plankton in the North Atlantic could affect the carbon cycle.

A relevant paper by Goreau et al is here.

P.S. 6 Aug: Bill McKibben puts his spin on the findings.

Rupert's children

Glen Beck and his fans.

The economist Michael Spence is quoted as follows
When people lose the sense of optimism, things tend to get more volatile. The future I most fear for America is Latin American: a grossly unequal society that is prone to wild swings from populism to orthodoxy, which makes sensible government increasingly hard to imagine.
Welcome to Mordorch.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


British kids can more easily identify Japanese cars than native plants and animals, reports Pamela Ronald.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ars moriendi

In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die...

...I think of Gould and his essay [The Median Isn't the Message] every time I have a patient with a terminal illness. There is almost always a long tail of possibility, however thin. What’s wrong with looking for it? Nothing, it seems to me, unless it means we have failed to prepare for the outcome that’s vastly more probable. The trouble is that we’ve built our medical system and culture around the long tail. We’ve created a multitrillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets—and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near-certainty that those tickets will not win. Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan...
-- Atul Gawande


The temple bell stops
But I still hear sound
Coming out of the flowers
-- Basho

Friday, July 23, 2010

Not as we know it

....the next phase of the chemistry-biology interface is going to be creating new biologies. And ultimately, because all biology is a subset of chemisty and all biologies are a subset of chemistry, we might find a new biology that is much more impressive than our own existing one. There might be twenty or thirty synthetic biologies in...two hundred years which we've actually produced for our benefit.
-- John Sutherland
An interesting question is whether life could only emerge in the kinds of environment that existed on the early Earth. Maybe genetic materials don't really have to look like RNA or DNA.
-- Jack Szostak

Both quoted in Acts of Creation, Frontiers, BBC Radio 4

Maybe the early Earth looked a bit like Iceland. -- Philipp Holliger

P.S. 9 August: Recreate life to understand how life began, says Jack Szostak.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Objectively insane

...The idea that Britain should take lessons about its nuclear deterrent from the likes of North Korea or Pakistan would be sneered at in Whitehall. Britain, after all, prides itself on being a “serious” country – and therefore, it is thought, it needs a serious nuclear deterrent.

But nuclear deterrence depends on the rational contemplation of acts that are objectively insane – up to and including the destruction of the whole world. The forensic logic of the Whitehall mandarin does not really apply in such a world...

...The lesson for Britain is obvious. There is no point in spending billions on a serious, credible and transparent nuclear weapons system such as Trident. The British should choose an unspecified, cheaper option, build it – and then just shut up about it. That would be deterrent enough.
-- Gideon Rachman

P.S. 1 August: See also Maginogogblog

A slam dunk

We gave Bin Laden his jihad.
-- Eliza Manningham-Buller

But criminal folly in Western policy toward Iraq started a decade earlier, says Andrew Cockburn.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Microbiome, microcosm

It’s as if we have these other organs, and yet these are parts of our bodies we know nothing about.
-- from How Microbes Defend and Define Us

Friday, July 16, 2010


Because [the miners] were killed and didn't finish their shift, [the mine owners] docked a quarter of a shift off their money.
--Ted McKay in a BBC report from Gresford.

The musician and his protege

My daughter and her mother are away for the next few days. I miss them more than I can say, but thinking of them helps me keep working.

This photo was taken last summer so she's grown quite a bit since then, but it captures something of her beauty and life that never changes. And it's a lovely memory of a good day out with our friend Kenny.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Plants 'can think and remember'

[The scientists] discovered that when light stimulated a chemical reaction in one leaf cell, this caused a "cascade" of events and that this was immediately signalled to the rest of the plant by via specific type of cell called a "bundle sheath cell". What was even more peculiar, Professor Karpinski said, was that the plants' responses changed depending on the colour of the light that was being shone on them. "There were characteristic [changes] for red, blue and white light," he explained.
-- from a BBC report

Friday, July 09, 2010


In a recent radio programme [1], Bill Viola quoted from a medieval text, Rules for the Icon Painters:
Work with care on every detail of your icon, as if you were working in front of the Lord, himself.
During work, pray in order to strengthen yourself physically and spiritually; avoid, above all, useless words and keep silence...
...Never forget the joy of spreading icons in the world, the joy of the work or icon-painting, the joy of being in union with the saint whose face you are painting. [2]
Set in a colder climate, Douglas Dunn's Instructions to a Saintly Poet begins:
Write by fire,
By a single taper,
By candlelight
By a fireside
Burning turf, or logs
If wood is plentiful.
Writing by burning light
Banishes pride.
Ink is holy.
Colours are holy,
Keep a dog, or dogs,
To sleep at your feet.
Invest in a warm blanket.
Spend hours outdoors
In all weathers
Alert to your thoughts
And moods of the sea,
All birds and creatures,
All living things
The shapes of the visible
And vernacular
Moods of the sky.

Image: 'Heaven and Earth' (1992)


[1] Episode 67 of A History of the World in 100 Objects: An Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy

[2] The injunctions between the dots are:
...Pray in particular to the saint whose face you are painting. Keep your mind from distractions and the saint will be close to you.
When you have to choose a color, stretch out your hand interiorly to the Lord and ask His counsel.
Do not be jealous of your neighbor’s work. His success is your success too.
When your icon is finished, thank God that His mercy has granted you the grace to paint the holy images.
Have your icon blessed by putting it on the altar. Be the first to pray before it, before giving it to others...

Thursday, July 08, 2010

'...all the flowers are forms of water...'

Rain Light by W. S. Merwin
All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

'Asleep at the wheel'

...the missed opportunity was after the bail-out, after we the Western taxpayers wrote these huge hundred-billion-dollar cheques. Some of the banks paid back their loans, and even some of the nationalised banks are heading back towards profitability, but the fact is that the rest of the economy is paralysed, and in the longest recession since the 1930s – and that was directly triggered by the banks. The amazing and appalling thing is that none of that has been addressed. It’s been addressed purely through rhetoric, but there’s no legislative instrument anywhere that’s done anything to change that. If Barclays tomorrow were to announce, ‘Really sorry, we’ve just lost a trillion dollars betting on whether the Chinese renminbi would appreciate, and it hasn’t, and can we have our bail-out now?’, the state would have no choice but to say, OK: they’re too big, and too systemically important. The implosion was more than a year and a half ago, and it’s all completely unfixed. It’s as if they’d performed some heroic feat of steering and then immediately fell asleep at the wheel.
-- John Lanchester.

Doing the right thing

Well done, Dave

Friday, July 02, 2010

The clods of unknowing

In the final part of a series of articles about anasognosia, Errol Morris asks "aren’t there some tasks where we’re all incompetent, where humanity itself is in the bottom quartile, so to speak?" And he quotes Noam Chomsky:
We are after all biological organisms not angels . . . If humans are part of the natural world, not supernatural beings, then human intelligence has its scope and limits, determined by initial design. We can thus anticipate certain questions will not fall within [our] cognitive reach, just as rats are unable to run mazes with numerical properties, lacking the appropriate concepts. Such questions, we might call ‘mysteries-for-humans’ just as some questions pose ‘mysteries-for-rats.’ Among these mysteries may be questions we raise, and others we do not know how to formulate properly or at all.
There may be something to this. Great scientists are often modest about the limits of what can be asked, what can be known. [1]

I enjoyed Morris's series and will continue to try to get to grips with issues it raises. But I wonder if he underestimates the ability of humans working together to (gradually, faultingly) get closer to reality...so long as they use an appropriate method. [2], [3]

The more we learn about consciousness, perhaps, the more we learn about its limits, but isn't that actually quite a useful thing? Just because consciousness is limited does not mean that it is necessarily 'futile'.


[1] In Runaway World, the fourth of his Reith Lectures, Martin Rees quotes Charles Darwin on religion: "The whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe as he can."

[2] Consider, for example, Problem-solving: chapter 3 in The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch, which champions Karl Popper's concept of evolutionary epistemology.

[3] For example, through good field work and careful analysis, Daniel Everett and others may have made useful advances beyond Chomsky et al. in the understanding of language.

Kabul Follies

Ultimately, the [U.S.] president succumbed to the dominant assumptions of the last two decades. Just as 8th century Mahayana Buddhists invented world after world, filling them with their distinctive demons and bodhisattvas, our think tanks and governments have also developed their own metaphysical structures, labeling them "failed states," or "counter-insurgency."...

...Take, for example, the master-concept behind Obama's surge, namely that in order to prevent Afghanistan posing a terrorist threat it was necessary to launch full-spectrum counter-insurgency operations. It is possible, of course, to expose the curious premises, analogies and chains of inductive logic which imply our activities in 2010 are an efficient way of preventing another terrorist attack. And 20 years from now, we may struggle to explain why we once felt Afghanistan required the deployment of 100,000 troops or the spending $100 billion each year -- why it required far more resources and attention than its more powerful and populous neighbors Iran or Pakistan.
--Rory Stewart

A couple more Britishers on the topic, plus one chap from the colonies: William Dalrymple and Paul Rogers, George Packer.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The book of the world

In Man of Letters Oliver Sacks writes that the capacity to read probably piggybacks on capacities evolved to put together a coherent picture of the world from a finite number of components:
We do not see objects as such; we see shape, surfaces, contours, and boundaries, presenting themselves in different illumination or contexts, changing perspective with their movement or ours. From this complex shifting visual chaos, we have to extract invariants that allow us to infer or hypothesize objecthood. It would be uneconomical to suppose that there are individual representations, or engrams, for each of the billions of objects around us. The power of combination must be called on; one needs a finite set or vocabulary of shapes that can be combined in an infinite number of ways, much as the twenty six letters of the alphabet can be assembled (within certain rules and constraints) into as many words or sentences as a language ever needs.

Sacks continues:
Mark Changizi and his colleagues at Caltech examined more than a hundred ancient and modern writing systems, including alphabetic systems and Chinese ideograms, from a computation point of view. They have shown that all of them, while geometrically very different, share certain basic typologies...Changizi at al. have found that similar typological invariants in a range of natural settings, and this has led them to hypothesize that the shapes of letters "have been selected to resembled the conglomerations of contours found in natural scenes, thereby tapping into our already-existing object recognition systems.
(Image from Magic Forest by Andrew Carnie)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

House of Continuity

Nick Clegg has been given the job of looking at reform of the House of Lords. It would be nice if, this time, there were actually some sensible progress. Who knows, perhaps in Britain's changed and reduced state such a thing may even be thinkable. There is no shortage of good ideas out there.

It might even be good to consider (with due scepticism and an eye on what is supposed to be 'the art of the possible') some really way out and whacky ideas. For example, the idea proposed by Jiang Qing in China for a tricameral legislature. As Daniel Bell describes this to Alan Saunders, this would comprise one House as 'more democratic', another House where the representatives are chosen by 'some sort of meritocratic means like some sort of examination system where the deputies would have the obligation to represent non-voters', and another House which Jiang Qing calls a House of Historical Continuity. In the second and third House the delegates would be required to consider and attempt to represent, somehow, the wisdom of past generation and the interests of future ones.

Jiang Qing's proposal may or may not be unworkable and misguided for China or anywhere else. But it has the merit of recognizing some shortcomings in what we regard as a typical system of representative democracy. And it might help us think.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"The prelude to an almost inevitable future"

It is time to stop demonizing Bin Laden and Al Qa’ida and focus on the broader threat. Massive population increases, poverty, decaying educational and social infrastructure, culture shock and alienation, and failed secularism affect far too much of the Islamic world. Yemen and Somalia are only the two worst cases, and some form of extremist and terrorist threat is likely to be a regional constant for the next two decades – regardless of whether the US and its allies win or lose in Afghanistan.
-- from Realism in Afghanistan by Anthony Cordesman

As Pericles is reported to have said, I am more afraid of our own mistakes than of our enemies' designs.

Sound and silence

...an audiologist from New York [went] in the 1960s..to what was at that point one of the most remote parts of the world, a section of Sudan 650 miles south west of Khartoum where a tribe of people known as the Mabaans lived who had none of the exposures to the sonic assaults that we do in cities today. He discovered that among the Mabaan the majority of people who were 70 years old heard as well as 20-year-olds did in New York and that two Mabaans facing in opposite directions 100 yards apart could speak in a very moderate, even low voice, and hear each other perfectly.
-- George Prochnik talking to Natasha Mitchell.

My first reaction to this had been that it was a bit precious:
There's that beautiful line from Thoreau, that silence has various depths of fertility, like soil. I felt again and again when I was traveling how each one of these different microclimates of silence, a pocket park or a monastery or a Zen garden or a neurobiology laboratory, had such a different texture to it.
But the conversation with Mitchell changed my mind.


Every second of every day people believe, often in perfectly good faith, that they’re doing one thing when they actually doing something completely different. And this is what I find to be the true poignancy of being human. It’s tragic, it’s comic and in its own peculiar way...it’s beautiful.
-- Ted Mooney in an interview with Sam Tannenhaus, NYT book review podcast, 4 June 2010.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tea, and the Philosophy of Right

This is the rage and anger I hear in the Tea Party movement; it is the sound of jilted lovers furious that the other — the anonymous blob called simply “government” — has suddenly let them down, suddenly made clear that they are dependent and limited beings, suddenly revealed them as vulnerable.
-- J.M. Bernstein builds a plausible hypothesis, following Mark Lilla's analysis of the Tea Party activists. But, Bernstein thinks, they are not Jacobins but nihilists. I think they are Carl Sagan's nightmare come true.

Words and deeds

...some of them pointed in the right direction. Obama used his first address from the Oval office to attack corporate self-regulation and to call for a revolution in energy and environmental technology: >
The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny -– our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we're unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don't yet know precisely how we're going to get there. We know we'll get there.
William Galton sees a missed opportunity:
In my judgment, the president’s speech tacitly sounded the death-knell for the inclusion of serious climate change provisions in any energy bill that Congress might enact this year.
P.S. Bradford Plumer sees a terrifying message in responses to the spill.

Monday, June 14, 2010


As winter turned to spring in the early months of 1960, a thick smell of death began to rise out of the landscape. Yu remembers the change of season clearly. Walking around the semi-rural enclave, he saw thousands of corpses strewn alongside the roads and in the fields. During the winter, the bodies had hardened and set in the cramped, bent shapes in which people had died. They looked like they had been taken out of a freezer and then randomly scattered across the landscape. Some of the corpses were clothed, but the garments had been ripped from others, and flesh was missing from their buttocks and legs. In the first days of spring, the corpses began to thaw, emitting a sickly smell that permeated the everyday life of a shell-shocked local citizenry.

The surviving residents protested later that they had been too short-handed and exhausted to give the dead the dignity of a burial. They blamed the disfigured corpses on hungry dogs, whose eyes, according to rumours which swept the area, had turned red after gnawing at human flesh. “That is not true,” said Yu. “All the dogs had already been eaten by humans. How could there be dogs left at the time?” The corpses hadn’t been eaten by ravenous animals. They had been cannibalised by local residents. Many people in Xinyang over that winter, and the two that followed, owed their survival to consuming dead members of their families, or stray corpses they could get their hands on.
-- from The man who exposed Mao’s secret famine, a profile by Richard McGregor of Yang Jisheng, the author of a book about the famine during the Great Leap Forward in which 35 to 40 million people starved to death.

Friday, June 11, 2010

...We are such bubbles as the water has...

Rising from the depths of the Boiling Abyss
Returning to rest in the Gulf of Obscurity
From The Question of Heaven, Songs of the Ch’u, translation by David Hinton

se non è vero è ben sognato

Running on water:


I think it is extremely unfortunate that Matt Ridley has missed many of the important points and concepts. In my view, he has also cherry-picked evidence to form opinions which are unsupported by the bulk of scientific evidence and understanding. This is demonstrated by the fact that he completely ignores the mainstream scientific literature. In my view, it is also clear that he has a very poor understanding of the core issues.
-- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, one of the experts asked by New Scientist to comment on Matt Ridley's take on ocean acidification, which is that:
Ocean acidification looks suspiciously like a back-up plan by the environmental pressure groups in case the climate fails to warm.
That sounds to me a bit like a PR person saying that:
the claim that smoking increases the risk of heart disease looks suspiciously like a back-up plan by anti-smoking campaigners in case smokers fail to die of lung-cancer.
On a broader point, how useful is Ridley's analogy of ideas 'having sex'? Is it more credible than the meme metaphor, which Scott Atran debunked in In Gods We Trust?

Ridley, it may be noted, is a passionate advocate of deregulation. Contrast this with a recent reality check by James Surowiecki.

P.S. 2pm: I haven't been keeping up with George's columns. He has a sound take here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Flooded in darkness

From Mikhail Bulgalkov's description of a mental breakdown in The Master and Margerita:
It was twilight, in mid October. She went. I lay down on my sofa and fell asleep without putting on the light. I was awakened by the feeling that the octopus [1] was there. Fumbling in the dark I just managed to switch on the lamp. My watch showed two o'clock on the morning. When I had gone to bed I had been sickening; when I woke up I was an ill man. I had a sudden feeling that the autumn darkness was about to burst the window pains, flood into the room and I would drown in it as if it were ink.
[1] Another translation has this as a large squid


Tony Judt (Israel Without Clichés) and Ilan Pappé (The deadly closing of the Israeli mind) -- following Ross Douthat (Outremer and Wanted: An Israeli Strategy) -- are among the latest to be worth reading and taken seriously on the upshots of the Gaza blockade. [See also a view from naval history and a Turkish view]

Barack Obama took a bold step in announcing $400m aid package to Gaza.

The divergence between Israeli views of the recent incidents associated with Gaza and those in much of the rest of the world is remarkable. Many Israelis, reportedly, saw the deaths of civilians as matter for humour. Others, e.g. UNRWA, tried to draw attention to the severity of humanitarian in crisis in Gaza.

I happened to be reading Stephen Asma's On Monsters and was reminded of the story of Golem -- not the Lord of the Rings character but the monster created to protect the Jewish community in Prague. In the old story, Golem runs amok, turning from a protector into a hazard. It seems to me that Israelis, who have created a military superpower and do not seem to set much store by many old friendships and alliances, would be wise to recall this story.

Asma quotes a characteristic insight of Montaigne's: "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself". Perhaps Israelis and others who are blinded by fear and rage will recover some of the sense of the miraculous nature of all lives.

Meanwhile, in the 'real world', Israeli preparations to attack Iran proceed. And Centcom is already at work.

A beautiful mind

Yellow-casqued hornbills—tropical birds that sport dusty orange mohawks—always perk up when Diana monkeys sound the eagle alarm, since eagles are a common enemy. But hornbills don't react to the Diana’s leopard alarm calls, because leopards usually can't catch the high-flying birds.
-- Scientific American

'The epitome of weakness'

The British Parliament really came about because it demanded control of public finances - the Magna Carta, the English Revolution and so on - and it once played a fairly important role in budgetary decisions, but it no longer does. So the last government defeat on estimates on the spending side of the Budget dates back to 1919 when the Lord Chancellor was denied funding for a second bathroom. So you have a situation where for a very, very long time, Parliament in Britain has not really done anything to the government proposal in terms of the spending side. On the tax side, once in a while it has managed to force some revisions to the government proposal, but even this is very, very rare. So you have a very weak Parliament. In an OECD context, Westminster really is the epitome of weakness.
-- Joachim Werner of the LSE, quoted in Economistocracy Analysis, BBC Radio 4.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


All denialisms appear to be attempts...to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature...This is not necessarily malicious, or even explicitly anti-science. Indeed, the alternative explanations are usually portrayed as scientific. Nor is it willfully dishonest. It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts.
-- from Living in denial.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tough oil

A couple of signs of changing times that were newish to me:
This year, the US overtook Russia to become the world’s biggest gas producer for the first time in a decade.
-- thanks to shale gas, reports Gideon Rachman
This year, the United States’ largest single source of imported oil is expected to be the Canadian tar sands.
-- reports Elizabeth Kolbert.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Before the Homoousians and the Homoiousians

Jesus’ morality has a brash, sidewise indifference to conventional ideas of goodness. His pet style blends the epigrammatic with the enigmatic. When he makes that complaint about the prophet having no honor in his own home town, or says exasperatedly that there is no point in lighting a candle unless you intend to put it in a candlestick, his voice carries a disdain for the props of piety that still feels startling...

Some of the sayings do have, in their contempt for material prosperity, the ring of Greek Cynic philosophy, but there is also something neither quite Greek nor quite Jewish about Jesus’ morality that makes it fresh and strange even now. Is there a more miraculous scene in ancient literature than the one in John where Jesus absent-mindedly writes on the ground while his fellow-Jews try to entrap him into approving the stoning of an adulteress, only to ask, wide-eyed, if it wouldn’t be a good idea for the honor of throwing the first stone to be given to the man in the mob who hasn’t sinned himself?...

This social radicalism still shines through—not a programmatic radicalism of national revolution but one of Kerouac-like satori-seeking-on-the-road. And the social radicalism is highly social. The sharpest opposition in the Gospels, the scholar and former priest John Dominic Crossan points out in his illuminating books—“The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” is the best known—is between John the Faster and Jesus the Feaster. Jesus eats and drinks with whores and highwaymen, turns water into wine, and, finally, in one way or another, establishes a mystical union at a feast through its humble instruments of bread and wine.
-- from Adam Gopnik on the real Jesus

Monday, May 17, 2010

MPAs not MAD

Shortly before the election I recorded a thirty second slot for Greenpeace's 'Cut Trident' campaign. That message has only just gone up, more than a week after the election, here. (You'll need to search 'Caspar' in the box in the bottom right hand corner. If you find it, and like it, give me a 'heart'!)

Britain's new coalition government has agreed to go ahead with a replacement for Trident. This overrides the position taken by the Liberal Democrats before the election. They were the only one of the three largest parties to oppose a rush to renewal.

Greenpeace's campaign was framed for the run-up to the election so my message comes after the horse has bolted. I hope, however, that they and others will continue their opposition to this misguided, dangerous and costly policy.

I wrote a short backgrounder for the thirty-seconder and post it below. Even this, of course, simplifies many key issues. For an introduction to Marine Protected Areas you could hardly do better than Enric Sala's talk recently posted by TED. Callum Roberts of York University has also written about this brilliantly. And for a little more context on destruction of the seas, Jeremy Jackson TED talk is also good. Anyway, here's my spiel:
Trident is a weapon system of the Cold War, designed for the world of Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD. [1] But that’s not the world we live in today. We are moving into a multipolar world in which many, perhaps dozens, of emerging powers will have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them over long distances, and in which non-state actors may be able to explode a nuclear device in a major city. This is a world of significant and increasing risks. None of them will be reduced by British possession of weapons designed for the mass slaughter of innocent people.

The best way to tackle our present nightmare is through international cooperation that leads to more effective control of nuclear materials in the civil sector, and to better control, limitation and, ultimately, abolition of nuclear weapons. [2] The framework for this, imperfect as it is, already exists. It’s called the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the overwhelming majority of nations, including Britain, are committed to it. Under its terms, the five officially recognized nuclear powers of which Britain is one are required to move towards nuclear disarmament. In return, other countries give up their programmes. After nearly a decade of neglect by the Bush administration in the United States, the administration of Barack Obama has breathed new life into this process. And there has never been a better opportunity for Britain to help reduce threats to its own security as well as the rest of the world.

A small part of the money earmarked for a new generation of British nuclear weapons could make a real difference here. 100 million pounds -- just over one tenth of one percent of 97 billion -- could promote sustained, creative engagement with and between other powers: trust-building exercises, exchanges of expertise - especially where trust is least - help for the creation of nuclear weapon-free regions and so on.
If we’re serious about our future security and well-being we should also consider other priorities. How an additional ten billion for education, for scientific research and development, and for greater energy efficiency? Hey, we could even use some of the money to reduce the government deficit.

And here’s another idea: the protection of endangered species and vulnerable ecosystems worldwide. As a writer on the natural world, I have found that people are only beginning to understand the wonders and the true value of this, our common heritage, and that we destroy it at our peril. But as we breath species and ecosystems are probably being destroyed faster than at any time in human history and perhaps for tens of millions of years.

The challenges of ecosystem protection and restoration are huge and complex. Many of them cannot be solved or even mitigated by throwing money at them. But a few can. And in this, the International Year of Biodiversity, Britain can make a difference where it matters most. One of the best ideas around is the creation of new Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs. These can do more than anything else to stem the destruction of the ocean life, at least in the near term. Relatively tiny sums - just one or two million a year for the Chagos Archipelago, for example -- have helped ensure some of the world’s most extraordinary coral reefs have a good chance of getting through the next few decades. A worldwide network of MPAs, increasing coverage from under one percent of the oceans to as much as a fifth or even third, is achievable for globally trivial sums, and it can be done in ways that recognize the needs of local people. Unlike the enormous subsidies currently paid to the fishing industry, it would actually deliver a positive return on investment. Similar initiatives to protect biodiversity on land can work too. A billion pounds from Britain would be a good start.

[1] According to Aron Bernstien of the Council for a Livable World, 192 independently targeted warheads on a Trident submarine can deliver 100 to 300 KT (The Hiroshima bomb was 15KT). This means that they can deliver, on a conservative estimate, 19 MT or more than six times all of Allied ordnance deployed against Germany, Japan and other powers in World War Two: " It's reported that UK Trident submarines carry 48 warheads.

[2] See, for example, A World Free of Nuclear Weapons by George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn. The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007.

P.S. Martin Rees on Disarmament Labs

P.S. 24 May: See An Arsenal We Can Live With by Gary Shaub and James Forsyth, and a useful Guardian article from 20 May: Deadly - and very, very expensive

Friday, May 14, 2010

'Reaching far beyond Realpolitik...'

Or not:
[Obama's] Cairo speech laid out a series of initiatives for America’s reëngagement with Muslim countries. Almost a year later, as a few of those initiatives have begun to take shape, a general pattern has emerged. The programs focus on entrepreneurship and business development, science education, women’s and children’s health, student exchanges. They do not cover human rights, political empowerment of women, or governance. After an internal debate, the Administration decided to stay away from these more sensitive topics at first and, instead, to build credibility in worthy but uncontroversial areas. It was a legitimate decision, [sic] but it has reinforced a view among some Arab reformers that, according to a recent report by the Project on Middle East Democracy, “President Obama has said the right words, but is unwilling or unable to offer substantive new policies to support the aspirations of people in the Middle East.”
-- George Packer. A recent FOOC report on Egypt here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

'Lotte hatt blaue Augen'

A.O. Scott gets it:
Jean Renoir is often described as one of the great humanists of world cinema. That’s a word that has an implication of high minded abstract maybe soft-headed sentimentality: “underneath it all we’re all the same and why can’t we just get along?” But...Renoir was not really motivated by abstract concerns about humanity...he was motivated above all by curiosity about and sympathy for his characters, by an interest in people. The film abounds in so many moments of humour of warmth, of sensuality, of surprise that make you realise that anything more abstract is really an illusion.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"The entire Indian subcontinent"

At the moment, virtually nowhere on Earth has a wet-bulb temperature of more than 30 °C. But with a global rise of 11 °C [by 2300], huge areas would have wet-bulb temperatures of more than 35 °C for part of the year. According to the climate model used by the team, these regions would include much of the eastern US, the entire Indian subcontinent, most of Australia and part of China.
-- Earth 2300: Too hot for humans.

Of course, it's just a model.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Gandamak ghost

In a useful piece published back in January on Obama's options in Afghanistan, Rory Stewart (who is now the Conservative Member of Parliament for Penrith) stressed that the situation in Afghanistan today differs from 1842 as much as it differs from 330BC and 1980. Still, Dalrymple's comparison has some plausibility.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

One of the reasons nukes may not be such a good idea

You don’t have to obtain access to the nuclear fuel, get into the control room [of a nuclear power plant] or penetrate the containment shell. Most of the critical components of the cooling system, including pumps and water intake pipes, sit unprotected outside. If you can get a car bomb or a team with demolition charges near these components, you can shut off the cooling water to the reactor, and physics will take care of the rest.
-- Charles Faddis.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How it was

The Ambassador's Reception, broadcast earlier this month on BBC Radio 4, included two anecdotes from the publisher and editor Murat Belge, who was held by the military after the 1980 coup in Turkey.
At one time the jailor required Belge and other political prisoners to capture exactly one hundred flies every day and present them in the evening for inspection. On the occasions they failed they were required to eat the flies. 'Imagine having to eat ninety seven flies.'

Another time Belge was being tortured so badly that he gave way and agreed to sign a confession. He went to the next room with his torturer to sign a document. They both sat down at the table and the torturer's knee accidently brushed against his. Please excuse me, said the torturer most politely.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

'Mind in nature'

Natasha Mitchell: I was interested to read that DH Lawrence talked about the mind in nature. It contrasted between what he described as a 'know it all' state of mind outside of nature and something different happening to the mind that interacts with the natural world. What did he mean by the 'know it all' state of mind? I think that's really interesting.

Richard Louv: Yes, I love that passage. He was writing about his experience of New Mexico. I had actually a park ranger tell me about the four corners of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada, that nowhere on Earth or in few places on Earth was so much of the past so close to the surface. And the 'know it all' state of mind just assumes we've seen it all. You know, when we travel, 'been there, done that'. And what he was saying is that we can be fooled, we can fool ourselves into that belief, but underneath the surface of wherever we go are larger stories. I think that when you're in a natural environment you feel that more than anyplace else. I feel that natural history should be as important to a regions identity as human history, and that our sense of meaning and purpose and connection and place comes from natural history, not just human history.
-- from Nature Deficit Disorder on All in the Mind, ABC. Louv notes later in the programme:
David Sobel at Antioch in the US uses, 'ecophobia', that's the fear of environmental destruction. Sobel makes the point that we are programming our kids way too early to believe that the Earth is over, that nature is at an end
... [But] we're missing two-thirds of the story, [which] is that, because of those great changes, because of climate change et cetera, everything in the next 40 years must change. To any self-respecting creative 16-year-old, that could be good news, and we better be entering one of the most creative times in human history. That's exciting.
A reminder of the scale of just one of the challenges: the beaches on the most remote islands in the world's largest oceans are literally turning into plastic.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Ash and lightning above Eyjafjallajökull. Photo by Marco Fulle via APOD.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Gold in the tar sands

[BP] Chief executive Tony Hayward received a 41% rise in his remuneration package in 2009 - meaning he took home about £4m in salary, bonus and share awards.

This was despite the firm seeing last year's profits fall by 45% to $13.96bn(£9.2bn).
-- from a BBC report, BP oil Canada plan faces shareholder vote.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Scolt Head Island

On 21 March I waded across Norton creek. An hour through marsh, sand and thick mud. This view, eastwards from the south side of the high dunes on the western part of the island, is towards towards Smuggler's Gap in the distance with Hut Marsh on the right:

And this is the view westward from the northern side the same dunes:

The view from those high dunes eastward and toward the sea:

Looking back to the high dunes from just above the beach on the northern side:

English Nature describes Scolt Head as "the prime example of an offshore barrier island in the UK...situated on a very dynamic coastline and...steadily growing westward."

Here is medieval glass showing the Man in the Moon at St Mary in Burnham Deepdale. A prayer on a pillar in the church begins: "O Thou who dwellest not in temples made with hands..." Scolt Head Island is right in front of you if you look north from the Saxon round tower of the church.

Snowdrops, still just about in flower in a spinney above Walsingham:

Later I wrote this.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Tell'em Paul

If we are going to be part of a third industrial revolution we are going to have to have a frank discussion about power.

All the power has been centred on finance and the financial model and, funnily enough, we have just hocked our entire economy to save that broken system.
-- Paul Mason

War games

By attacking without Washington's advance knowledge, Israel had the benefits of surprise and momentum - not only over the Iranians, but over its American allies - and for the first day or two, ran circles around White House crisis managers.
-- from Imagining an Israeli attack on Iran.

Roger Cohen notes a shift in thinking in the U.S.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Worse than a crime

Marc Thiessen's Courting Disaster embraces horrible, foolish crimes. In letting these go, Jane Meyer reminds us, the Obama administration has made a grave mistake:
By holding no one accountable for past abuse, and by convening no commission on what did and didn’t protect the country, President Obama has left the telling of this dark chapter in American history to those who most want to whitewash it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

That's not entropy, man

John Gray finds fault with Jeremy Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization (review). Some of his points may be well taken. But he says something rather odd:
How could human empathy possibly defeat the force of entropy, an irreversible physical process?
It seems Gray equates behaviour by human groups, nations and civilisations as a whole, and the outcomes of those behaviours, with the second law of thermodynamics. Eh? A defining characteristic of humanity and indeed life in general is that it/they exist despite the second law by using energy from outside the immediate system of which they are part (i.e. from the sun and to a lesser extent radioactivity from inside the earth).

It is not hard to find grounds for pessimism regarding progressive action on climate change and much else. But entropy is not the issue. If there is to be progress it is likely to be grounded on a whole lot of rational self interest, including the possibility that there is more money and power to be derived from generating and using energy in smarter ways. And there may, even, be a role for empathy.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Where the grickle grass grows...

Approaching the derelict shell of downtown Detroit, we see full-grown trees sprouting from the tops of deserted skyscrapers. In their shadows, the glazed eyes of the street zombies slide into view, stumbling in front of the car. Our excitement at driving into what feels like a man-made hurricane Katrina is matched only by sheer disbelief that what was once the fourth-largest city in the US could actually be in the process of disappearing from the face of the earth. The statistics are staggering – 40sq miles of the 139sq mile inner city have already been reclaimed by nature.
-- Julien Temple

Monday, March 08, 2010

" 'Reality' is dispensable"

The message of what is now James Cameron's most popular movie thus far, and the biggest-grossing movie in history—like the message of so much else in mass culture just now—is...that "reality" is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, whatever you care to make of it, provided you have the right gadgets. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don't have to wake up. There's no need for home. Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie for our time.
-- from The Wizard by Daniel Mendelsohn.

Cameron see things differently. When Andy Revkin asks, why build a fantasy world? he replies:
People connect to that world, to the Na’vi and Na’vi philosophy, but it really is about reconnecting with our own world here. That’s how I see science fiction, functioning as a kind of a mirror. It’s often talked of as prophetic. But it’s generally been pretty lousy at predicting the actual future. To me, it allows us to step outside our own parochial interests and lets us look back at ourselves, at human nature, at the way we do things, without all the normal guilt-inducing buttons.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

'A very good election to loose'

In the general gloom I have only one piece of potentially good news, and even that might be wishful thinking. The bank bonuses this year are so grotesque that there are only two explanations for them. One is that investment banking culture truly is psychotic, in the strict sense of being out of touch with reality. That’s possible. The other explanation is that, as a French economist said to me when the crunch kicked in, ‘It’s over.’ He meant the whole obscene-bonus culture, the model in which the banks’ shareholders let the bankers pay themselves half what the bank ‘earns’, in the context of a regulatory and political framework in which the banks are allowed to do whatever they like. The proposals now being touted do not guarantee systemic safety, but taken together they will, for sure, make the system much less profitable. Maybe, just maybe, the bankers are pigging out this year because they suspect this is the last of the good times. If we’re looking for a glint of silver lining, does that count?
from The Great British Economy Disaster by John Lanchester

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


I do not think that Yucca Mountain is a solution or a problem. I think that what I believe is that the mountain is where we are, it's what we now have come to -- a place that we have studied more thoroughly at this point than any other parcel of land in the world -- and still it remains unknown, revealing only the fragility of our capacity to know.
-- from About a Mountain by John D'Agata. Reviews: LA Times, NY Times