Friday, June 28, 2013

"Memory can go further back..."

I think the memory of most of us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose; just as I believe the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy. Indeed, I think that most grown men who are remarkable in this respect, may with greater propriety be said not to have lost the faculty, than to have acquired it; the rather, as I generally observe such men to retain a certain freshness, and gentleness, and capacity of being pleased, which are also an inheritance they have preserved from their childhood.
 -- from David Copperfield, recalled by Romesh Gunesekera

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Exterminate the brutes

The reviews for The Book of Barely Imagined Beings have been good (see, for example, here and here).  The book has been longlisted for the Royal Society science book prize and the Society of Authors Biology book prize (general category).

Customer reviews at have been varied. Some have been disappointed that the pictures are only in black and white. Others have liked the text. William Suddaby of Sugarloaf Key,  Florida (More than a Bestiary, June 23, 2013) writes:
A book of cosmic importance. If you have ever wondered who are we, where are we, and where might we be going, this is a book for you. It is a delight to read and hold -- breathtakingly wise, startling, preeminently significant for the 21st Century. 
The most unfavourable review of which I am aware appears in the Good Reading Guide. Harely J Sims accuses me of anti-humanism and finds my sociopolitics obnoxious, associating me with “the extreme environmental and animal-rights movements.”

Mr Sims is welcome to find my sociopolitics obnoxious so long as he understands what they actually are. It is clear that at present has no idea. An epigraph for the book, and one which I quote most in talks, is from Montaigne:
The most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being.
This speaks to an explicitly pro-human viewpoint and the celebration of human capabilities throughout the book. The fact that many of our capabilities are grounded in things we share with other animals does not diminish them.

I am not going to respond in detail to his criticism, much of which is daft, but I will take two points by way of illustration.

1) I do not write that giant sponges are the ancestors of human beings. To find what I actually write see page 31.

2) Sims takes issue with the description of the First World War as an occasion on which Europeans killed each other on a scale matched only by their destruction of native peoples overseas in the previous few decades. But consider the following:
Total casualties in the four years of WW1: about 37 million, of which 16m dead and ±20m wounded.
Starvation to death of peasants in late 19th century British India resulting from government policies: 30 to 60 million.
Deaths of natives in Congo caused by the Belgian regime, 1880/90s: 2 to 15 million.
During the Italian pacification of Libya a quarter of Cyrenaica's population was killed.
The Herero and Namaqua genocide by German forces in Southwest Africa 1904-1907  is recognized as the first genocide of the 20th century.
These are just a few examples from a much longer list of brutal policies and outright atrocities committed by the European colonial powers and the United States in the period 1850 to 1914, not to mention earlier outrages. Not all were deliberate acts of extermination. All were associated with policies intended to keep subject peoples under control and shore up imperial power.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Ignorance, confidence, knowledge

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
-- Charles Darwin (1871)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The utopian goal of totalitarian secret police

 The modern dream of the totalitarian police, with its modern techniques, is incomparably more terrible [than that of its predecessors]. Now the police dreams that one look at the gigantic map on the office wall should suffice at any given moment to establish who is related to whom and in what degree of intimacy: and, theoretically, this dream is not unrealizable although its technical execution is bound to be somewhat difficult. If this map really did exist, not even memory would stand in the way of the totalitarian claim to domination; such a map might make it possible to obliterate people without any traces, as if they had never existed at all. 
-- from The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) Hannah Arendt.  

Monday, June 17, 2013

Etymology, cognition, emotion

Words describing emotions appear to evolve either from words describing physical phenomena associated with the emotion or from the thing that inspires the emotion. Regret literally means “to weep again,” from such words as Old English graetan and Proto-Germanic gretan; and worry originally mean “to choke or strangle,” a meaning that can be traced all the way back to the Indo-European wērgh. Astounded and astonished evolved from the Latin verb tonare, meaning “thunder;” and fear doesn't acquire its emotional dimension until 1280, before which the Old English (faer) simply meant “danger” or “peril.”

In the realm of thought, the evolution of consider can be followed back ... to the Latin considerare meaning “to examine or contemplate,” deriving from an earlier meaning “to examine the stars,” which grew out of its root elements con (with) + sidus (star/constellation). Ponder can be traced to the...marketplace via Old French ponderer (to weigh or balance in a scale)...

The ancient Chinese mind underwent the same process of metaphoric self-creation as [the Western one], but its empirical origins remain apparent, for the ten thousand things are still visible in the pictographic nature of characters. Mind, for instance, is simply a picture of the heart in classical Chinese, because the thinking mind is not distinguished from the feeling heart...

To feel [in classical Chinese] is constructed of the character for “heart-mind” and the one for “the blue-green color of landscape”, a remarkable concept of color that includes both the green of plants and trees and nearby mountains, and the blue of distant mountains and sky. Hence, the “heart-mind in the presence of landscape-color” or “the landscape-color of heart-mind.” 
-- from Hunger Mountain by David Hinton

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The sea mysteries

Like an oyster hides its pearl,
The sea hides its wonder world.

Like a mermaid flicks her tail,
The sea is real and surreal.

Like the heart of the angler fish,
The sea's heart beats in the dead of night,

The sonar's echo of lovers dead and lost,
All the lonely people - lost at sea.

the haunting music of the deep dark sea.


All around the wide world,
the sea speaks in many tongues.

In many skins, the sea repeats its lines.
With wide, tide arms, the sea keeps time.

In the great treasure chest below
Are the sea special gifts:

Lantern fish, bristlemouths, hatchetfish,
Plankton, krill, shrimps, copepods, squid.

Pink eggs, razor sharp teeth, transparent shells.
Triple wart sea devil, common black devil fish.

As if the sea imagined its creatures,
dragging the ocean for inspiration,

As if the sea drew a rough sketch,
Then coloured them in:

Black and red creatures of the dark zone.
Fish that flash, fish that turn themselves inside out.

Out of the vivid imagination of the sea,
Crawled the wild and the wonderful,

The gulper eel, the vampire squid from hell,
the kind and the savage, the beautiful and the ugly,

The saints and the martyrs,
The myths and the workers.

Nothing could ever surprise the sea.
The sea is you. The sea is me.

Like an oyster hides its pearl,
The sea hides its wonder world.

Like the heart of the angler fish,
The sea's heart beats in the dead of night,

The sonar's echo of lovers dead and lost:

the haunting music of the deep dark sea.
-- Jackie Kay

Friday, June 14, 2013

“You ain’t never seen trouble till you lose a youngun.”

Of the seven children the Tingles have lost, one lived to be four, and pulled a kettle of scalding water over on him. One lived to be five and ate some bad bologna sausage one night and was dead before morning. The rest died within their first year.
-- from Cotton Tenants

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Patent Tempest Prognosticator

The Patent Tempest Prognosticator [demonstrated by Dr George Merryweather in 1851] was based on the well known response of leeches to sudden changes in barometric pressure. Their soft, gelatinous bodies were squeezed and made drowsy and inactive by normal air pressure, but low pressure refreshed and awoke them...

The Prognosticator...was an ingenious form of multiple leech barometer. It consisted of a circular display of twelve glass flasks, each containing a leech partially immersed in rainwater. The flasks were enclosed at the top with a system of whalebone springs, and these in turn were linked to a set of counterweights that connected to metal hammers arranged to strike against an impressive brass bell at the centre of the apparatus. 
From Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Friday, June 07, 2013

The nothing that is

Recent measurements... suggest that the universe as a whole has zero energy, zero charge, and zero angular momentum. How is this possible? All energy due to matter (which is positive) is canceled by an equal amount of gravitational energy (which is negative). There are equal amounts of positive and negative charge, and we cannot create one without creating the other. Zero angular momentum means that the universe has no net spin. The universe, then, is a whole lot of nothing: yin and yang that cancel each other out. Locally, in our own neighborhood, we seem to have lots of stuff: matter, charges, motion, entropy, and uncertainty. But globally, none of these exist, never have and never will.
-- from The Rise of the Uncertain by Vlatko Vedral at Nautilus

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft

...that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar...
from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad quoted by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)