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 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)