Monday, December 29, 2014

Best of the year

My recommendations for this year include:
Listen: an interview about Syria with the surgeon David Nott and many episodes of Radiolab but e.g. Translation.
Reportage/Analysis/Opinion: James Fallows on The Tragedy of the American Military, James Meek's Worse than a Defeat on the British Army in Afghanistan, A Vision for Nature by George Monbiot and ‘Islamic State’ – Seven Impressions Of A Difficult Journey by Jürgen Todenhöfer
Fiction: Tenth of December by George Saunders (2013), Orfeo by Richard Powers (2014) and The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino (1959). I've had a copy of the last of these three on my shelf since 1986 and only got around to reading it this month.

Non-fictionThe Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf (2014), Indonesia etc by Elizabeth Pisani (2014), Adapt by Tim Harford (2011) and Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane (forthcoming in 2015).
Watch: Twelve Years a Slave (released in 2013), Grand Hotel Budapest, Two Days and a Night.
and more...

The least boring post on this blog this year may be A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene.

My book recommendations for 2013 are here.

Image from story by Martin Chulov about Umm Abdu, a medic in Aleppo

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Protect the Hen Harrier

I have a review of Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes in the Telegraph.  The following passage was cut in the edit:
...The point is no less true for being a bit of a cliche. Indeed, if some accounts are to be believed, standing up for the truth of it may have may have cost Simon Barnes his lucrative and enjoyable career as Chief Sports Writer at The Times, from which he was dismissed in June of this year. According to some accounts, Barnes spoke up one time too many against the illegal killing in England of Hen harriers, a spectacular and beautiful raptor that is all but extinct in that country. As Barnes notes in the book, “only one pair of hen harriers succeeded in breeding in 2012...
Simon Barnes's blog is here.  In a recent post he says:
I am out there cheering for all the real conservationists... They are the people who are constantly seen as sentimentalists trying to save nice fluffy animals when in fact, as the great Gerald Durrell said, what we’re actually trying to do is stop the human race committing suicide.
The RSPB Hen Harrier Appeal is here

Image: Wild Scotland

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


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

Friday, October 17, 2014

Alarms and surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 05, 2014

"Life is something that happens on the edge"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A distant roar

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

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Hephaestos, the blacksmith god.

Monday, March 31, 2014

"A sense of immanent meaning or significance"

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

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

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The unanswerable question

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

Monday, February 17, 2014


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

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

Here is an article titled The Dawn of Artificial Intelligence.  

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

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

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

Thursday, February 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dream flight

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

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

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

Friday, January 17, 2014

Sonic Wonders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 01, 2014


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

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