Friday, October 26, 2012

Totally cosmic

  • There are more stars in the visible universe than all the are grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth.
  • The number of synapses in a single human cerebral cortex, about 125 trillion, is the amount of stars that would fill 1,500 Milky Way-type galaxies.
-- Amazing facts to blow your mind

Monday, October 08, 2012

Plato's universe

 John Wheeler said that the "basis of all mathematics is 0 = 0". All mathematical structures can be derived from something called "the empty set", the set that contains no elements. Say this set corresponds to zero; you can then define the number 1 as the set that contains only the empty set, 2 as the set containing the sets corresponding to 0 and 1, and so on. Keep nesting the nothingness like invisible Russian dolls and eventually all of mathematics appears...

...Reality may come down to mathematics, but mathematics comes down to nothing at all.
That may be the ultimate clue to existence - after all, a universe made of nothing doesn't require an explanation. Indeed, mathematical structures don't seem to require a physical origin at all. "A dodecahedron was never created," says Max Tegmark.

"To be created, something first has to not exist in space or time and then exist." A dodecahedron doesn't exist in space or time at all, he says - it exists independently of them. "Space and time themselves are contained within larger mathematical structures," he adds. These structures just exist; they can't be created or destroyed.

That raises a big question: why is the universe only made of some of the available mathematics? "There's a lot of math out there,"  says Brian Greene. "Today only a tiny sliver of it has a realisation in the physical world...

..."I believe that physical existence and mathematical existence are the same, so any structure that exists mathematically is also real," says Tegmark.

So what about the mathematics our universe doesn't use? "Other mathematical structures correspond to other universes," Tegmark says. He calls this the "level 4 multiverse", and it is far stranger than the multiverses that cosmologists often discuss. Their common-or-garden multiverses are governed by the same basic mathematical rules as our universe, but Tegmark's level 4 multiverse operates with completely different mathematics.
-- from Reality: Is Everything Made of Numbers? by Amanda Gefter

Saturday, September 22, 2012

'Lyricism is a function of precision'

Writing is a craft. It is learnt in the way that cabinet making is learnt, or a musical instrument is learnt, which is to say by practice and the often effortful acquisition of technique. Richard Sennett, in his brilliant book on the idea of craft, estimates that it takes 10,000 hours to learn to play the violin well or to make an admirable cabinet. It takes even longer to become a writer, because before you become a writer you must first become a reader. Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write; this continues to be true throughout a writer's career. Reading bad writers can be as useful as reading good ones. To continue the cabinet-making analogy, reading good writers shows you how to achieve the verbal equivalent of the tongue-and-groove joint, the well-bevelled edge, the countersunk screw, the mahogany inlay or the beeswax polish. Reading bad writers, you see how the chisel can leap and gouge the wood, how joints can be left unflush and how hinges can creak.

You don't have to read within your tradition or form, of course. JG Ballard, for instance, read almost no fiction, preferring what he memorably called the "grey literature" of technical manuals, medical journals and police reports. I like to read as much as I can from the tradition in which I supposedly work. All of the books in my writing room are either travel literature, or nature writing, or a mix of the two. On the lower shelves, within grab-able reach, I've got my favourites: Jonathan Raban, Italo Calvino, Rebecca Solnit, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Hugh Brody, Annie Dillard, John Muir, Gretel Ehrlich, Tim Robinson, JA Baker, Barry Lopez

It's these last two writers who have influenced me more than any others: Baker, author of The Peregrine (1967), and Lopez, whose masterpiece is Arctic Dreams (1984) but whose essay collections Crossing Open Ground and About This Life are also magnificent. In The Peregrine I saw how to describe the rapid actions of nature, and I experienced the power of Baker's metaphors: what an early reviewer called their "magnesium-flare intensity". Lopez's hymn to the Arctic revealed to me the possibility of entwining cultural history, anthropology, travelogue, science and elegy. Lopez also convinced me that lyricism is a function of precision – and that exact and exacting attention to the natural world is a kind of moral gaze.
-- Robert Macfarlane

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

'The head inside out'

Once their faces were turned outward, men became unable to see themselves, and this is our great weakness. No longer able to see ourselves, we imagine ourselves. 
-- Rene Daumal

Friday, September 14, 2012

Unseen because not perceived

The landscapes I have in mind are not some part of the unseen world in the psychic sense, nor are they part of the unconscious. They belong to the world that lies visibly about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived: only in that way can they be regarded as invisible.
-- Paul Nash, quoted by Robert Macfarlane in an introduction of Nature Near London by Richard Jefferies

Thursday, September 13, 2012


An iridescent blue iceberg in the Southern Ocean, near Antarctica. The blue is created from thousands of years of snow slowly compressed into a hard glacier. As air is squeezed out, ice crystals grow, absorbing light from the red end of the visible spectrum, leaving blue light to be refracted. Photo by David Walsh

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The best of times...

Anthony Barnett quotes Frank Cottrell Boyce:
Political discourse is largely addressed to the worst of us. I'd like to see the best of us – the idealistic, altruistic, connected side of us – taken into account. When it comes to motivation, for instance – for years, we've been told that you need to give massive salaries and bonuses to the "best" people in order to keep them. In the past two weeks, we've seen brilliant work done by people – athletes, coaches, volunteers – who have no notion of financial reward. The best people are attracted to challenges, and driven by loyalty, vision, altruism, fun. People who can be bought for big salaries are not the best but, in fact, the worst – disloyal, unimaginative, restless and unsatisfied. For years, we've been systematically seeking out the very worst people and putting them in charge of our banks and big companies.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Hungry ghosts

A praed isn’t necessarily dead. In some interpretations, Anderson tells us, it’s an individual who’s committed minor offences, and been condemned to a particularly nasty perpetual hunger – for blood and pus – which can’t be satisfied because he or she has only a pinhole for a mouth. This isn’t the case, however, with the victims of the venerable abbot’s fantasies. Their orifices aren’t scanted, and the torments warn that trespasses will lead to suffering now, in much the same way as drug addiction soon tells. Luang Phor Khom explicitly ordered his sculptors to shame the sinners by exposing their all – hence the raucous nudity. So it might have been possible, for example, to meet a lover illicitly in the wat one night and return the following month to find oneself depicted and branded, bloodied and skewered, one’s guts spilling out, breasts lopped off and genitals horribly swollen and luridly aflame. Narokphum is a kind of Struwwelpeter sculpture garden, filled with the dire consequences of bad behaviour come from the mind of a raging celibate. 
-- Marina Warner

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Monday, July 16, 2012

Read this and weep

Nothing like a bit of cold hard reality on a Monday morning:
In a Washington Post/Stanford University poll last week, a large majority of Americans said global warming was happening. Equally wide margins were opposed to taking mandatory steps at home, or providing assistance overseas, to try to slow it down.
Source: Welcome to the new world of American energy

Friday, July 13, 2012

A sea of troubles

over the next 4 decades, the combination of deep-water upwelling and rising atmospheric CO2 is likely to have profound impacts on waters off the West Coast of the United States, home to one of the world's most diverse marine ecosystems and most important commercial fisheries
- report, paper

A plausible mission statement for geoengineering

...from Oliver Morton:
To explore the development of a well characterised, reversible technology, the use of which promises to curb a profound harm caused by greenhouse warming while not risking comparable harm of some other sort, and –within the context of a continuing transition to a carbon-neutral economy — to work towards deploying such a technology in a safe, timely, transparent and equitable way, if such a course is possible.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Failure in Afghanistan

After eleven years, nearly two thousand Americans killed, sixteen thousand Americans wounded, nearly four hundred billion dollars spent, and more than twelve thousand Afghan civilians dead since 2007, the war in Afghanistan has come to this: the United States is leaving, mission not accomplished. Objectives once deemed indispensable, such as nation-building and counterinsurgency, have been abandoned or downgraded, either because they haven’t worked or because there’s no longer enough time to achieve them. Even the education of girls, a signal achievement of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, is at risk. By the end of 2014, when the last Americans are due to stop fighting, the Taliban will not be defeated. A Western-style democracy will not be in place. The economy will not be self-sustaining. No senior Afghan official will likely be imprisoned for any crime, no matter how egregious. And it’s a good bet that, in some remote mountain valley, even Al Qaeda, which brought the United States to Afghanistan in the first place, will be carrying on.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Art, talisman, symbol

Three paragraphs from different parts of a review essay by Marina Warner on Damien Hirst:

The words tempus and temple share the same root; the connection suggests that the function of a sacred space is to make time stop or stretch, or render its passage palpable to the worshipper/visitor. Galleries and museums explicitly recall temples in their architecture, and they can also double as national mausoleums: they function socially in comparable ways (‘temples for atheists’), providing an occasion for assembly, for communal experiences, for finding meanings. Above all, it’s striking how crucial the idea of developing our sensitivity to time has become in contemporary artists’ work. ‘I do not think I am slowing down time,’ Tacita Dean, one of the most delicate time machinists of all, said recently, ‘but I am demanding people’s time. In a busy world, that is a big demand, but one of the many reasons why art matters is its ability to stop the rush. Art on film makes us conscious of the time and space we occupy, and gives us an insight into the nature of time itself.’
Some of the votive offerings of the past were highly wrought: their efficacy was bound up with the intricacy and technical complexity of the artefact. The anthropologist Alfred Gell, in his study Art and Agency (1998), took the prows of Papuan war canoes as his prime example of magical prophylaxis: the brain-teasing involutions of the carving were intended to bamboozle hostile forces. Gell argued that the approaches anthropologists use to understand the meaning of art and aesthetics in a culture that is not their/our own should be extended to explore contemporary art at home; and he showed that similar desires are in play when artists make objects as instruments that exert some kind of power on their surroundings, either to make things happen (to assure health, fertility, luck in love, wealth, cleanse a pollution), or to stop things happening (to prevent death, destroy enemies, ward off nightmares, avert revenge). Rather than inquiring into phenomena by representing them, as Monet magnificently struggled to do with the Nymphéas series or the façade of Rouen cathedral in different light and weather, surrealist artists and their kin – conceptualists, performers, language artists – began using mimesis according to the principles of magical thinking, as a talisman: you reproduce the horror to avert it. Hirst’s anatomies are closer to relics than to Rembrandt still lifes. His glittering medicine cabinets, now exhibiting dazzling zirconia crystals as well as pills, are tabernacles as lustrous as Counter-Reformation propaganda for the Eucharist. Even the spot paintings, which have a look of pretty minimalism (and have been much copied by packaging and fashion), reveal an allegorical higher purpose through their titles, while the reiteration, multiplicity and essential meaninglessness of the spots relate them to the processes of charms and spells – often nonsensical, always repeated.
The word ‘symbol’ has unexpected but revealing origins. It is derived from the Greek verb ballein, ‘to throw’, as in the geometrical figure of the hyperbola for a cone that’s extended far from its base: thrown wide, as it were, as in ‘hyberbole’. It persists in diabolus, Latin for ‘devil’, where it evokes the devilish work of throwing everything apart and athwart, scattering into disorder and cacophony. Symbol means ‘thrown together’, and it was first used to describe a tally, a coin, token or stick cut in half to solemnise an agreement, which would be concluded when the two parts were joined together again. ‘The one [part] in my possession,’ Eugenio Trias has explained,
is the ‘symbolising’ component of the symbol. The one elsewhere is needed to gain meaning … [and] the disjunction between these two parts … constitutes the horizon of meaning … The drama (of their conjunction) leads towards the final scene of reunion and reconciliation, in which both parts are ‘pitched’ into their desired coming together.
This site of conjunction is key to the effect of a work of art in the symbolic mode; what happens there gives the artefact a quality of presence, makes it radiate significance, sometimes quite softly, but still irresistibly and ultimately ungraspably. Then you want to go on looking, and looking again.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The end

A new visualization of the graze between our galaxy and Andromeda 2.3 billion years from now, followed by a full-scale collision 5 billion years from now is worth a look
"Prognosis for our solar system: either flung safely into space—or blasted by radiation from supernovae at the center of the new galaxy."
Death is the end but not the goal of life. It is its finish, its extremity but not therefore its object. Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.
-- Montaigne
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there...
-- Pascal

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On colour

Recent buzz around colour has included a report on research into the exceptional colour vision amoung human females, a Radiolab feature, and interesting blog posts (one, two) on colour, language and the brain.

I've been reading Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain and have been struck by passages describing colours. Here are three:
When [Cairngorm water] has any colour at is a green like the green of winter skies, but lucent, clear like aquamarines, without the vivid brilliance of glacier water. Sometimes the Quoich waterfalls have violet playing through the green, and the pouring water spouts and bubbles in a violet froth.  The pools beneath the waterfalls are clear and deep. I have played myself often by pitching into them the tiniest white stones I can find, and watching the appreciable time they take to sway downwards to the bottom.
     Some of the lochs are green. Four of them bear this quality in their names - Loch an Uaine. [The lowest of them, Ryvoan Loch] has a lovely frieze of pine trees, an eagle's eyrie in one of them, and ancient fallen trunks visible at the bottom through clear water. The greenness of the water varies according to the light, now aquamarine, now verdigris, but it is always a pure green, metallic rather than vegetable.

Once the snow has fallen, and the gullies are choked and ice is in the burns, green is the most characteristic colour in sky and water. Burns and rivers alike have a green glint when seen between snow banks, and the smoke from a woodman's fire looks greenish against the snow. The shadows on snow are of course blue, but where snow is blow into ripples, the shadowed undercut portion can look quite green.A snowy sky is often pure green, not only at sunrise or sunset but all day, and a snow green sky looks greener in reflection, either in water or from windows, than it seems in reality. Against such a sky, a snow covered hill may look purplish, as though washed in blaeberry. On the other hand, before a fresh snowfall, whole lengths of snowy hill may appear golden green. One small hill stands out from this greenness: it is veiled by a wide-spaced fringe of fir trees and behind them the whole snowy surface of the hill is burning with vivid electric blue.

The air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and its soil, It has its own air; and it is to the quality of its air that is due the endless diversity of colourings. Brown for the most part in themselves, as soon as we see them clothed in air the hills become blue. Every shade of blue, from opalescent milky-white to indigo, is there. Then the gullies are violet. Gentian and delphinium hues, with fire in them, lurk in the folds.
An ordinary human can perceive a million different colours. English has, perhaps, a few thousand of words to distinguish them, and in most normal speech we use far fewer.  Deploying a relatively limited vocabulary, Shepherd nevertheless achieves -- with the cooperation of the readers powers of memory and imagination -- subtlety, depth and surprise both with regard to colours of the mountain and the other things she is also writing about when she writes about colour.

Monday, June 18, 2012

'On Fear'

Mary Ruefle writes about fear:
...I asked the poet Tony Hoagland what he thought about fear. He said fear was the ghost of an experience: we fear the recurrence of a pain we once felt, and in this way fear is like a hangover. The memory of our pain is a pain unto itself, and thus feeds our fear like a foyer with mirrors on both sides. And then he quoted Auden: “And ghosts must do again/What gives them pain.” It is interesting to note that this idea—fear’s being the ghost of pain, or imaginary pain—figures in psychological torture by the cia; in fact, their experiments with pain found that imaginary pain was more effective than physical pain—poets, take note—and thus psychological torture more effective than physical torture...

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A hope for England

We need to grow...a democratic constitutionalism that calls on the tradition of Blake, the author of England’s anthem, and the Leveller Rainsborough, to take just two examples from a much larger conversation. The latter famously claimed that ‘the poorest he that is in England has a right to live as the greatest he’. He said this when he spoke in the Putney debates of 1647. Sixteen words, seventy-two characters (half a tweet), they are the first, compressed expression of modern democratic politics: asserting the moral equality of all while recognising difference, emphasising life and location not race or essence, and making a claim of right in a shared society. Spoken by a soldier in a debate within Cromwell’s army, at a turning point in our Civil War, they were and are profoundly civilian, and so are we. 
-- Anthony Barnett

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The rebirth of tragedy

Whether it is a fantasy of market freedom or one in which the market is abolished, modern politics is haunted by myths of redemption. In the prevailing anti-tragic world view, human institutions are the result of human action and can therefore be altered by human decision.

The lives that are shown in The Wire confound this seemingly obvious inference. What is done cannot be undone; history cannot be repealed by human will. The workings of necessity that have shaped the past will also shape the future. Serious politics accepts this fact. Redemptive politics only magnifies the waste of life: the drug war, which is supposed to deliver society from the evil of addiction, exposes millions to violence and chronic insecurity. Failing or refusing to accept tragedy, politics has become a theatre of the absurd.

In denying us the comfort of redemption, The Wire re-connects us with reality. When it shows human lives ending in a lack of meaning, the series confronts us with the absurd in its most pitiful form. When it shows human beings joking, cursing and carrying on despite this absurdity, it achieves something like the liberating catharsis that Nietzsche imagined being produced by ancient Greek drama. The struggles we share with the protagonists are not deviations from some ideal version of humanity that will someday come into being. Intractable conflict goes with being human. In one way or another, practically everything in current media culture is escapist in intention or effect. In astonishing contrast, The Wire returns us to ourselves.
John Gray

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The case

What has been written down is not a description of the world at all, but a description of acts of observation made on the world. All our customary scientific terms such as energy, momentum, position, speed, distance, time, etc. -- they are terms specifically for the description of observations. It is a misuse of language to try and apply them to a world-in-itself divorced from the action of an observation. It is this misuse of language that leads to problems like that posed by the wave/particle paradox. Which is not to say that the world-in-itself does not exist outside the context of someone making an observation of it. Rather, as Werner Heisenberg asserted, all attempts to talk about the world-in-itself are rendered meaningless.
-- Russell Stannard

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The wind in the forest

The living presence of the Great World was very very present to me. It was always clear to me from my own life that where we were nature could have just swept us away in a moment. It seemed ancient and authoritative and tolerant – but not terribly tolerant! – of our being there. My grandparents had a house that was built on Victorian notions of health. There was a sleeping porch so that you could sleep in the open air when it wasn't terribly cold. We would be out there in the middle of the night. No light anywhere except the stars. And you would hear the wind in the forest. It was amazing.
 -- Marilynne Robinson, interviewed by Matthew Sweet (from about 25 minutes in)

Welcome to Life

h/t Simon Ings

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Èig, n. Gaelic: the quartz crystals on the beds of moorland stream-pools that catch and reflect moonlight, and therefore draw migrating salmon to them in late summer and autumn.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Big business

A reasonable list of prosecutable crimes committed during the bubble, the crisis, and the aftermath period by financial services firms includes: securities fraud, accounting fraud, honest services violations, bribery, perjury and making false statements to US government investigators, Sarbanes-Oxley violations (false accounting), Rico (Racketeer Influenced and Criminal Organisations Act) offences, federal aid disclosure regulations offences and personal conduct offences (drug use, tax evasion etc).
-- Charles Ferguson

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Richardson's dream

Imagine a large hall like a theatre, except that the circles and galleries go right round through the space usually occupied by the stage. The walls of this chamber are painted to form a map of the globe. The ceiling represents the north polar regions, England is in the gallery, the tropics in the upper circle, Australia on the dress circle and the Antarctic in the pit.

A myriad computers [i.e. human individuals doing computations] are at work upon the weather of the part of the map where each sits, but each computer attends only to one equation or part of an equation. The work of each region is coordinated by an official of higher rank. Numerous little "night signs" display the instantaneous values so that neighbouring computers can read them. Each number is thus displayed in three adjacent zones so as to maintain communication to the North and South on the map.

From the floor of the pit a tall pillar rises to half the height of the hall. It carries a large pulpit on its top. In this sits the man in charge of the whole theatre; he is surrounded by several assistants and messengers. One of his duties is to maintain a uniform speed of progress in all parts of the globe. In this respect he is like the conductor of an orchestra in which the instruments are slide-rules and calculating machines. But instead of waving a baton he turns a beam of rosy light upon any region that is running ahead of the rest, and a beam of blue light upon those who are behindhand.

Four senior clerks in the central pulpit are collecting the future weather as fast as it is being computed, and despatching it by pneumatic carrier to a quiet room. There it will be coded and telephoned to the radio transmitting station. Messengers carry piles of used computing forms down to a storehouse in the cellar.

In a neighbouring building there is a research department, where they invent improvements. But these is much experimenting on a small scale before any change is made in the complex routine of the computing theatre. In a basement an enthusiast is observing eddies in the liquid lining of a huge spinning bowl, but so far the arithmetic proves the better way. In another building are all the usual financial, correspondence and administrative offices. Outside are playing fields, houses, mountains and lakes, for it was thought that those who compute the weather should breathe of it freely.
--  Lewis Fry Richardson (1922)

Images: View across Loch na h-Uamha to Aird Bheag, the ENIAC (the electronic computer which realized Richardson's dream).

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Welcome to the Anthropocene

The photography of Edward Burtynsky

P.S. 14 June; 'What these ruined and discarded objects show is not the end of oil, writes Tony Wood, but the obsolescence of these particular machines; not the exhaustion of a civilisation addicted to petroleum, but its oblivious self-perpetuation.'

Friday, May 11, 2012

Future money

Assuming that we aren’t about to see a swift unravelling of the contemporary world into a far lower degree of complexity, the left will need to imagine and propose credit systems and monetary authorities that can prise apart debt and hierarchy, exchange and inequality. Money, and therefore debt, is always an abstraction. But justice too can be abstract, and there is no reason in principle why money and debt must serve injustice rather than justice.
-- Benjamin Kunkel

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Tracks and wonders

All things are engaged in writing their history...Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting, a map of its march. The ground is all memoranda and signatures; every object covered over with hints. In nature, this self-registration is incessant, and the narrative is the print of the seal.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson quoted by Robert Macfarlane in the preface to The Old Ways. "The eye is enticed by a path and the mind's eye also."

Emerson and Macfarlane are thinking of an essentially benign wild and/or rural environment. Will Self suggests that in the electronically-mediated ['smart'] city, walking is often "analogous to a clinically defined psychotic state."

P.S. 14 May: Marmaduke Dando: 'Growing up in a suburb outside of the city of Portsmouth, we didn’t do God and we didn’t do nature. We just did what we were told.'

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Potentially infinite

An astonishing concept has entered mainstream cosmological thought: physical reality could be hugely more extensive than the patch of space and time traditionally called “the universe”. We've learnt that we live in a solar system that is just one planetary system among billions, in one galaxy among billions. But there are signs that a further Copernican demotion confronts us. The entire panorama that astronomers can observe could be a tiny part of the aftermath of our Big Bang, which is itself just one band amount a potentially infinite ensemble. In this grander perspective, what we've traditionally called the laws of nature may be no more than parochial bylaws – local manifestations of “bedrock” laws that must be sought at a still deeper level.
-- Martin Rees

M57 - the Ring Nebula

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Mutual aid

...when then Twin Towers collapsed nobody trampled each other, nobody panicked, all that savage social Darwinism you could promise didn’t happen. People aided each other in kind of extraordinary ways: a quadriplegic accountant was carried down sixty-nine stories by his coworkers who didn’t do any accounting for what he owed them on the way.
...there was this moment in which relations were completely different, both at a practical level but also at an emotional level. Everybody says everybody made eye contact, they cared about how you were, boundaries came down. And that was terrifying to the Bush administration and to Wall Street, which was essentially Al Qaeda’s target. And they had to get us back to business—remember that campaign, America Open For Business and all that other stuff? This is a long way around saying that what actually happens in disasters is that they demonstrate that people are actually very good at being communists in the sense that they instantly abandon capitalism, that they love these relationships of mutual aid, because the astonishing thing about disasters is that people are often weirdly joyous in them, because they’ve recovered a sense of agency, a sense of power, etc...
-- Rebecca Solnit

Sunday, April 29, 2012


There are many Ouses in England, and consequently much debate about the meaning of the word. The source is generally supposed to be usa, the Celtic word for water, but I favoured the argument, [Sussex] being [a] region of Anglo-Saxon settlement, that here it was from the Saxon word wāse, from which derives also our word ooze, meaning soft mud or slime; earth so wet as to flow gently. Listen: ooooze. It trickles along almost silently, sucking at your shoes. An ooze is a marsh or swampy ground, and to ooze is to dribble or slither. I liked the slippery way it caught at both earth's facility for holding water and water's knack for working through soil.
-- from To The River by Olivia Laing

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

'It all turns on affection'

We have one memory of [my grandfather] that seems, more than any other, to identify him as a sticker. He owned his farm, having bought out the other heirs, for more than fifty years. About forty of those years were in hard times, and he lived almost continuously in the distress of debt. Whatever has happened in what economists call “the economy,” it is generally true that the land economy has been discounted or ignored. My grandfather lived his life in an economic shadow. In an urbanizing and industrializing age, he was the wrong kind of man. In one of his difficult years he plowed a field on the lower part of a long slope and planted it in corn. While the soil was exposed, a heavy rain fell and the field was seriously eroded. This was heartbreak for my grandfather, and he devoted the rest of his life, first to healing the scars and then to his obligation of care. In keeping with the sticker’s commitment, he neither left behind the damage he had done nor forgot about it, but stayed to repair it, insofar as soil loss can be repaired. My father, I think, had his father’s error in mind when he would speak of farmers attempting, always uselessly if not tragically, “to plow their way out of debt.” From that time, my grandfather and my father were soil conservationists, a commitment that they handed on to my brother and to me.
-- Wendell Berry

Monday, April 23, 2012

England, awake!

As Scotland goes on its way, deciding what it is and what it will be in increasingly numerous and often positive directions it would be wonderful to see England do the same, to decide it is something more than the media’s presentation of the feudally servile, or drunkenly violent, the pitiable list of scared tabloid negatives - Not Foreign, Not Gypsy, Not Dying of Cancer yet. And it would be wonderful to see if London can be one of the places where England remembers how many possibilities there are in Englishness and how much it has survived. It would be magnificent and life-saving if London reminded Britain that we built a welfare state from nothing but faith in a broken country and that it worked very well. And perhaps London can be one of the places where England remembers that its entertainments weathered religious and political censorship, the closing of the playhouses, the forgetting and suppressing of songs and dances and ways of being with each other that made human beings feel they could be better in themselves and with each other.
-- A L Kennedy

Sunday, April 22, 2012

'Referential mania'

In these very rare cases, the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in- most thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing, in some awful way, messages that he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. All around him, there are spies. Some of them are detached observers, like glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others, again (running water, storms), are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings, but, alas, it is not! With distance, the torrents of wild scandal increase in volume and volubility. The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther away, great mountains of unbearable solidity and height sum up, in terms of granite and groaning firs, the ultimate truth of his being.
-- from Symbols and Signs by Vladimir Nabokov

The Gulf, two years on

For me the Gulf spill has had an almost metaphoric importance beyond the spill itself. It’s shown me how we [in the US] think as a nation. How we get obsessively into something, then ignore it, and how we operate in panic mode, emergency mode. One thing most of us certainly don’t do is think like naturalists.
-- Bethany Kraft

See also Sick fish, eyeless shrimp and dead dolphins

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Science and the open society

Fang Lizhi was good at explaining how, for him, concepts of human rights grew out of science, writes Perry Link. In an essay in [the NYRB] he named five axioms of science that had led him toward human rights:
1. “Science begins with doubt,” whereas in Mao’s China students were taught to begin with fixed beliefs.
2. Science stresses independence of judgment, not conformity to the judgment of others.
3. “Science is egalitarian”; no one’s subjective view starts ahead of anyone else’s in the pursuit of objective truth.
4. Science needs a free flow of information, and cannot thrive in a system that restricts access to information.
5. Scientific truths, like human rights principles, are universal; they do not change when one crosses a political border.

A forest of signs

The stream of data continued. Gas volumes pumped through the BTC and Druzhba pipelines, racial assaults in Australia, coltan mining yields in the DRC free-zones, incidences of Marburg hemorrhagic fever in those same zones, hourly volume of technology stocks traded on the Nikkei...Jaz was no longer analyzing these clusters himself, just feeding him into [the new global quant model] Walter, which was unearthing connections at an alarming rate. Everything seemed to be linked to everything else: the net worth of retirees in Boca Raton, Florida, oscillating in harmony with the volume of cargo arriving at the port of Long Beach, Southwestern home repossessions tracking the number of avatars in the most popular online gameworlds in Asia. At first Jaz had wondered whether the model was a hoax, something that existed only in Cy Bachman's imagination. Now he found himself disturbed by its power. What would happen when they started trading?
-- from Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Darkness

In A London Address, an Artangel podcast recorded in January, the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez says:
Great books are more intelligent than their authors.The books we call classics are Pandora's boxes whose warnings tend to be vindicated by history. One of the most fearsome characters in [Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel] The Secret Agent is Mr Vladimir, theoretician of terrorism, who at some point in the novel suggests a series of outrages: "Let them be directed against buildings for instance," he says, "and that on two conditions." The first is that they must be a fetish, recognized by all the bourgeoisie. And second the attack must be "of a destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable - in fact, mad."

I was not in London when the twin towers of the World Trade Center [in New York] fell in September 2001, but later when the war in Iraq was broadcast live on television I watched it from a friend's living room near the Emirates Stadium. Like many, I thought the war was a mistake. Like many, I regretted the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. Like many, I was wounded by the images of the red buses torn apart in the 7th of July [2007].  But like very few I remembered the all too believable words of another terrorist pronounces in Conrad's novel: "To break up the superstition and worship of legality should be our aim. Nothing would please me more than to see Inspector Heath shooting us down in broad daylight with the approval of the public. Half the battle would be won then. The disintegration of the old morality would have set in in its very temple."

To what extent did they achieve this, those who attacked New York and London?  I do not yet have the answer, but I will not stop asking the question.
The question remains urgent. See, among others:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A too-soft heart

The 2010 Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, currently in prison in China, wrote that the Mao era "caused people to sell their souls: hate your spouse, denounce your father, betray your friend, pile on a helpless victim, say anything to remain 'correct'", and argued that the consequence was today's "Age of Cynicism in which people no longer believe in anything".

Such generalisations can feel uncomfortable to those with little or no first-hand knowledge of China. Many recent commentators have noted the futility of trying to summarise everything currently taking place in China, let alone trying to predict what may come next.

But Yiyun Li's fiction echoes Xiaobo's analysis of a society hollowed out by its past, of people who have lost their moral bearings and struggle to find any meaning in life. Character after character in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl rejects intimacy in favour of isolation, and those who do scramble after lust or affection end up disappointed or betrayed. "People who do not cling to life perish, one way or another," reflects the narrator of the opening story, "Kindness". Every story in the collection has a suicide.
-- from a profile of Yuyun Li

Thursday, April 12, 2012

'The Blue of Distance'

There is no distance childhood...Their mental landscape is that of like a medieval paintings - a foreground full of living things and then a wall. The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy and loss...
-- Rebecca Solnit in an Artangel podcast

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The land beyond the sea

I happen to come across this today (hat tip GM), which happens to resonate with things I've been thinking about for a couple of months.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Got Better

Granta has published a short piece by me on running and not running as part of its 'exit strategies' series. Since I wrote it I have heard from my GP that the X-ray shows no indication of osteoarthritis, and I am in the clear. (The pain and swelling in my knee may be the result of running in shoes that were worn out and other factors. After more than a month's rest I'm feeling fine, and am starting - cautiously - to run again.)

Anyway, I can say 'got better', at least for now.  Any resemblance I may bear to a newt is down to something else.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Hinkley C

You have explained several times now that you favour the deployment of new nuclear reactors which you believe could consume the existing waste legacy as fuel. Some people question the feasibility of this technology and I don’t know enough to comment on it, but I would encourage you to continue this line of research, as a supportable method for dealing with our toxic legacy is still needed.

But good or bad, this is not the technology on offer at Hinkley C. What we are opposing here is the same old waste pile, the same old lengthy and expensive decommissioning, the same old secrecy and state collusion, the same old “off site emergency” hazard, and potentially the same old thyroid cancer for my daughter, 25 miles away. It only looks different because it has been re-invigorated by the fear of climate-change, modern propaganda techniques, the ageing of the anti-nuclear generation, and the lack of any democratic platform for opposing specific plans on the ground.
-- Theo Simon to George Monbiot

Friday, March 30, 2012

'The current financial system poses an existential threat to Western democracy'

We have at the moment this monstrous hybrid, state capitalism – a term which used to be a favourite of the Socialist Workers Party in describing the Soviet Union, and which only a few weeks ago was on the cover of the Economist to describe the current economic condition of most of the world. This is a parody of economic order, in which the general public bears all the risks and the financial sector takes all the rewards – an extraordinarily pure form of what used to be called ‘socialism for the rich’. But ‘socialism for the rich’ was supposed to be a joke. The truth is that it is now genuinely the way the global economy is working. 
The financial system in its current condition poses an existential threat to Western democracy far exceeding any terrorist threat. No democracy has ever been destabilised by terrorism, but if the cashpoints stopped giving out money, it would be an event on a scale that would put the currently constituted democratic states at risk of collapse. And yet governments act as if there is very little they can do about it. They have the legal power to conscript us and send us to war, but they can’t address any fundamentals of the economic order. So it looks very much as if Marx’s omission of the word ‘capitalism’, because he foresaw no alternative within the existing social order, was an instance of his crystal ball functioning with particularly high resolution.
-- from Marx at 193 by John Lanchester. Lanchester is good, too, on some of what Marx and Marxists got wrong.


Two piece on 'Nature Deficit Disorder' today

In Natural Childhood for The National Trust (UK), Stephen Moss frames NDD as a disorder leading to physical health problems in children including obesity, mental health problems, and growing inability to assess risks to themselves and others.

Timothy Egan at the New York Times argues that growing epidemic of obesity in the US is linked to lack of time outdoors.

Aleks Krotoski challenged the idea that nature deficit disorder exists and that not going outside is linked to an increase in obesity among children. But whether there is a causal link or not, it seems clear that getting kids outside more -- in addition to other changes such as better diet -- could help them in many ways.

Egan makes some deep links:
Nature may eventually come to those who shun it, and not in a pretty way. We stay indoors. We burn fossil fuels. The CO2 buildup adds to global warming. Suburbs of Denver are aflame this week, and much of the United States is getting ready for the tantrums of hurricane and tornado season, boosted by atmospheric instability. 
Last week, an Australian mountaineer named Lincoln Hall died at the age of 56, and in the drama of that life cut short is a parable of sorts. Hall is best known for surviving a night at more than 28,000 feet on Mount Everest, in 2006. He’d become disoriented near the summit, and couldn’t move — to the peril of his sherpas. They left him for dead. And Hall’s death was announced to his family. But the next day, a group of climbers found Hall sitting up, jacket unzipped, mumbling, badly frostbitten — but alive. He later wrote a book, “Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest.” 
Still, having survived perhaps the most inhospitable, dangerous and life-killing perch on the planet, Hall died in middle age of a human-caused malady from urban life — mesothelioma, attributed to childhood exposure to asbestos.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The challenge

When the modern world was being born, the supposedly inescapable limitations of human nature was a conservative theme. Inherited traditional beliefs and forms of authority were held to be all that most people could understand or live by. To convince a wide public to reject these a priori limits and trust themselves morally and politically was the first, heroic task of Enlightenment intellectuals. Faith in progress was once a precondition of progress. It still is, to the extent that contemporary right-wing libertarianism insists that democratically controlled enterprises must always be less efficient than hierarchical ones like corporations. 
But entwined with democratic self-confidence, there grew up a less reflective faith in unlimited material progress, based partly on a belief that human wants and needs would grow to match increases in productive capacity. This may have seemed plausible before the environmental limits to growth became obvious in the mid-twentieth century; but more important, it was also convenient for those who wished to deflect attention from the gradual and many-sided loss of autonomy that industrial mass production and bureaucratically organized medical/educational/psychotherapeutic expertise imposed on nearly everyone. As the state, the economy, and the institutions regulating everyday life all grew in scale, the only sphere of autonomy left to ordinary people was consumption. And so an entire ideology and technology of consumption arose, on the premise that happiness consisted primarily in consumption, which could apparently be increased without limit. And if that’s true, then our powerlessness doesn’t matter.
-- George Scialabba

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Royals

Anyone who wants to know what the Occupy Wall Street protests are all about need only look at the way Bank of America does business. It comes down to this: These guys are some of the very biggest assholes on Earth. They lie, cheat and steal as reflexively as addicts, they laugh at people who are suffering and don't have money, they pay themselves huge salaries with money stolen from old people and taxpayers – and on top of it all, they completely suck at banking. And yet the state won't let them go out of business, no matter how much they deserve it, and it won't slap them in jail, no matter what crimes they commit. That makes them not bankers or capitalists, but a class of person that was never supposed to exist in America: royalty.
-- Matt Taibbi on Bank of America

Friday, March 09, 2012

Thoughts for the day

If you're not angry you're not paying attention.
If you're not terrified you're not paying attention.
If you're not joyful you're not paying attention.

Friday, March 02, 2012


Devices for producing electricity began to appear in the eighteenth century. Johan Winkler, a professor in Leipzig, could charge himself from a 'friction machine' and set glasses of brandy on fire by throwing sparks from his tongue.
-- a vignette from The Music Room by William Fiennes

Monday, February 27, 2012

Booms and flashes

A couple of recent articles in New Scientist about strange sounds and lights on Earth:
* Every so often, a loud booming noise is heard from over the horizon without any obvious explanation.
*Weird earthquake warning lights (one of 'seven wonders of the atmosphere').

Sunday, February 26, 2012

No flow

Three days ago I learned that I may have osteoarthritis in my right knee.  This is no big deal in the scheme of things. It is not unusual in someone of my age (I am 48), but nor is it very common, and it hit me like a hammer blow.

I have been fortunate with my health and have been cross country running for many years. I have trekked in some of the toughest and most beautiful terrain on Earth. This year I had started training for a spring event, and was particularly looking forward to it, not least because some other avenues in life seem dark, perhaps blocked.   Running in the woods and the hills when the sun is bright can be a peak experience:  I enter a state of flow -- a zone -- that I otherwise experience only a few activities such as music and thinking-and-writing (when the thinking-and-writing is going especially well.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The complex

Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka argue that 'the nonproliferation complex' -- 'a loose conglomeration of academic programmes, think tanks, NGOs, charitable departments and government departments all formally dedicated to the reduction of nuclear dangers' -- is based on a (self) deception. Excerpt:
To eliminate the danger of eventual nuclear war, we will have to embark on a far more revolutionary political project than the nonproliferation complex acknowledges, or perhaps is even aware of. A study from 1946, when only one nation had the bomb, captured the problem:

"Effective international control to guarantee that atomic weapons could not be used by an aggressor nation is virtually impossible under the present concept of a world divided into nations maintaining their full sovereignty. No system of inspection can be expected to be 100 per cent effective in such a world, and 99 per cent is no guarantee."

The authors of this statement, not dreamy idealists but the US joint chiefs of staff, recognised what the complex has avoided. Nuclear abolition is not going to happen unless a regime is devised capable of preventing a national from building a bomb on the sly. Such a regime would have to be more powerful than any existing state, so cannot be conceived as part of a world divided into sovereign nations. If you want to get to nuclear zero, this is the kind of political agenda you have to address. As long as the tacit twin goals of the complex -- selective non-proliferation and ineffectual abolition -- continue to shape the international agenda, one outcome is certain: a world filled with nuclear weapons.

Friday, February 10, 2012


...Religions have wisely insisted that we are inherently flawed creatures: incapable of lasting happiness, beset by troubling sexual desires, obsessed by status, vulnerable to appalling accidents and always slowly dying. 
They have also, of course, in many cases believe in the possibility that a deity might be able to help us. We see this combination of despair and hope with particular clarity at Jerusalem's Western or Wailing Wall, where Jews have, since the second half of the sixteenth century, gathered to ari their griefs and to be their creator for help. At the base of the wall, they have written down their sorrows on small pieces of paper, inserted these into gaps and mong the stones and hoped that God would be moved to mercy by their pain. 
Remove God from this equation and what do we have left? Bellowing humans calling out in vain to an empty sky This is tragic and yet, if we are to recuse a shred of comfort from the bleakness, at least the dejected are to be found weeping together...
-- from Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

P.S. 16 Feb: 'Religions are human creations,' writes John Gray. 'When they are consciously designed to be useful, they are normally short-lived. The ones that survive are those that have evolved to serve enduring human needs - especially the need for self-transcendence.'

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Stephen Hester and the sheriff of Rockridge

Stephen Hester explained that he and his colleagues had a duty "to defuse the biggest time bomb in history in terms of bank balance sheets."

But who created the time bomb if not the banks and their chums in off-shore and secrecy jurisdictions, aided by politicians?

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

How some conservatives corrupt language

One has to jump through some hoops of rhetoric and framing to get from Margaret Thatcher's 'there is no such thing as society' to Mitt Romney's 'corporations are people, my friend' but there is a straight line linking the two.

Niall Ferguson's abuse of language is no less striking when he adopts Joseph Schumpeter's most famous phrase to write, with evident relish, of an upcoming attack on Iran that 'It feels like the eve of some creative destruction.'

Winston Churchill, a great conservative, would not have talked of war in this way.

An ocean was here...

...once, perhaps twice

Here's an image, taken in 2005, of ice near Mars's north pole:

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


In a discussion of the financial crisis, Francis Fukuyama recommends The Big Short by Michael Lewis. “What this book does quite brilliantly is show that there was actually a high degree of intentionality in creating the crisis.”  This is something that any of us who have tried to educate ourselves now know well.  Much of the financial system was, and largely remains, predatory. A primary question now is what to do about it.  (Some ideas, perhaps here and here.)

I read The Big Short a while ago and strongly recommend it to anyone who hasn't.  Only today did I start reading Boomerang, Lewis's more recent collection of essays. The piece on Iceland is funny as well as insightful:
...Back away from the Icelandic economy and you can't help but notice something really strange about it: the people have cultivated themselves to the point where they are unsuited for the work available to them. All these exquisitely schooled, sophisticated people, each and every one of whom feels special, are presented with two mainly horrible ways to earn and living: trawler fishing and aluminium smelting There are of course a few jobs in Iceland that any refined, educated person might like to do. Certifying the non-existence of elves, for instance...But not nearly so many as the place needs, given its talent for turning cod into PhDs. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Icelanders were still waiting for some task more suited to their filigreed minds to turn up inside their economy so they might do it. Enter investment banking...
It remains to be seen whether women will make a better job of Iceland's future than its men have of its present...assuming men let them.

Sky light

Early yesterday evening I was, while calm, quite down. Then, on the way to collect L at about 5.20, I saw the sky. It was very clear, and a deep blue light filled the west before the oncoming night.  The new moon, about a quarter full, was towards the zenith in the south.  Beneath it and slightly to the right was Jupiter. Further towards the southwest and considerably lower though still high up (perhaps 45 degrees) was Venus. The clarity was exceptional and I fancied I could see Venus's crescent my naked eye. I felt profound joy and awe at the sight - an intimation of the dance of matter of which consciousness is part. And I remembered an even more intense moment of this kind when looking at hillside woodland on a bright afternoon winter light just two days before that I had already forgotten. The trees were dormant but life was still dancing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Safe House

Janine Webber, born in Lvov in 1932, tells me she survived by posing as a Catholic and working as a maid. "I lived with two families: one betrayed me and killed my brother. After that, we lived in a hole, 13 adults and me, hidden by a young Pole. His name was Edek. He hid 14 Jews for nothing, for no money. For a year, in a bunker. We took it in turns to lie down or to sit. For a year, I didn't see daylight. I was 10."
-- Jonathan Freedland

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Catch 2012

There was only one catch and that was Catch 2012, which specified that no country was allowed to have nuclear weapons to deter its enemy's nuclear weapons unless it already had them.

The only countries that possessed nuclear weapons legally – the permanent members of the UN Security Council – did so on the understanding that they had made a solemn promise to phase them out. This they had no intention of doing.

Countries like North Korea and Israel which possessed nuclear weapons illegally did not consider themselves bound by any such undertaking – an indication of the higher moral standard to which they aspired. These countries made it very clear that they had the power to inflict indiscriminate death on the civilian population of their neighbours, and that was just fine with them.

Countries like Iran which saw themselves as threatened by weapons of mass destruction held illegally countries like Israel were, however, under no circumstances to be allowed to possess the power to deter such an attack. If they tried to do so, they were to be destroyed, even if this caused catastrophic damage to the global economy and sowed seeds of hatred for generations to come.

Some people suggested that it would be quite easy to avoid such a conflict. All that would have to happen would be for the nations that possessed nuclear weapons illegally or sought to do so to phase them out or refrain from making them in the first place, and agree to a nuclear-free regional zone enforced by intrusive UN inspections.  This suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm and relief by most civilians. As the consequence it was immediately laughed at and dismissed by those who made the decisions.

(P.S. 31 Jan: Steve Coll on cool heads)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The carceral state

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.
-- Adam Gopnik quotes from Charles Dickens on solitary confinement in an outstanding piece on incarceration in the United States. Six million people are under correctional supervision in the U.S.—more than were in Stalin’s gulags. At any one time around 50,000 of them are in solitary confinement.

Friday, January 20, 2012


I put on the headphones and was suddenly engulfed in birdsong—so much so that for a moment I took them off to look around. Where were all these birds? The sun’s first rays were just lighting the foggy gray around us, and I thought I should be able to see them. Certainly, I could hear them through the headphones. Krause smiled, understanding my bewilderment. “Just listen,” he advised. I put them back on, and once again felt the slight disorientation of being pulled into an invisible world, one I had never known existed. Goldfinches added their quick, metallic notes to the more melodious calls of the sparrows; robins and grosbeaks whistled sweetly, juncos chirped, and towhees wheezed tow-wheee, tow-wheee. Every few minutes, another species joined the chorus, creating the morning’s biological symphony. I was instantly addicted, and I wanted to know why. Even more, I wanted to know why these once ubiquitous choruses are in such decline.
-- from The Sound of Silence by Virginia Morrell

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Experiments in ethics

One version of Naturalism starts by thinking of ethics not as the search for a single immutable all-serving principle, but rather as an entirely human endeavor, a project begun by our remote ancestors tens of thousands of years ago and continuing indefinitely into the future. There is no mountain to climb, no final compendium of ethical truths, but only a central human predicament, from which we escaped by learning—imperfectly—to regulate our own conduct. The philosophical study of this project must absorb the insights of various natural and human sciences, bits of evolutionary biology and primatology, of psychology and anthropology, of archaeology and history. (Naturalism should be elaborated broadly, recognizing the potential contributions of all rigorous forms of inquiry across the entire spectrum, from art history and anthropology to zoology; there is no need for Naturalists to lapse into the scientism of taking some particular area of physical science as fundamental.) Sensible conclusions cannot be reached by pitting imprecise principles against fanciful cases, but rather by looking, as carefully and as comprehensively as we can, at the details of ethical practice and ethical change.
-- from Philip Kitcher's review of On What Matters by Derek Parfit

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Liu Xiabo

When the “rise” of a large dictatorial state that commands rapidly increasing economic strength meets with no effective deterrence from outside, but only an attitude of appeasement from the international mainstream, and if the Communists succeed in once again leading China down a disastrously mistaken historical road, the results will not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people, but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world. If the international community hopes to avoid these costs, free countries must do what they can to help the world’s largest dictatorship transform itself as quickly as possible into a free and democratic country.
Liu Xiabo quoted by Simon Leys

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dark materials

...any hopes that the nature of [dark matter] would be quickly revealed by these first detections have been utterly dashed. The trouble is that dark matter appears to be different things to different detectors. It appears heavier in one detector than another; it appears more ready to interact in one experiment than another. In the most extreme case, it shows up in one instrument but not in another - even when both are made of identical material and are sitting virtually next door in the same underground lab...
-- from Dark matter mysteries

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Beyond Afgansty

More than ten years after September 11, it is simply appalling that supposedly well-informed people are still treating the terrorist threat in such a crude and mechanistic fashion. Have they not realized that the membership of al-Qaeda and its allies is not fixed, but depends on al-Qaeda’s ability to recruit among Muslims infuriated by US actions? Or that a terrorist attack on the US is as likely—more likely—to be planned in Karachi, Lahore, the English town of Bradford, or New York as in Pakistan’s frontier areas? An essential US motive for a peace settlement in Afghanistan, one allowing complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, is precisely that it would allow America to pull back from the existing confrontation with Pakistan—not continue it into the indefinite future, with all the gains that this would create for resentment by extremists.
-- Anatol Lieven

Friday, January 06, 2012


'Hi!' said the Muskrat. 'Now I should like my book spirited back again, please.'

'Right!' said the Hobgoblin. 'Here you are, sir!'

' "On the Usefulness of Everything",' read the Muskrat. 'But this it the wrong book. The one I had was about the Uselessness of Everything.'

But the Hobgoblin only laughed.
-- from Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson.