Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Books of 2015



Much but not all of what I read this year was work-related.  My recommendations are:
Owning the Earth by Andro Linklater
Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson
The Vital Question by Nick Lane
Clade by James Bradley
Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
The Wonderful O by James Thurber
I didn’t see nearly as many films as I would have liked to. Among those I did see that I particularly liked were Timbuktu and Song of the Sea.

I’ve just finished Number 11 by Jonathan Coe, and am reading Rise of The Robots by Martin Ford and After Nature by Jedediah Purdy.

Among the books I hope to read next are Inequality by Anthony Atkinson and Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert.

Image: in July I got to leave my shed and spend a week in another shed. But it was a shed on Eigg with a view of Rùm.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

'A democratic Anthropocene'

...There’s an ethnography of Alaska’s Athabascan peoples, by Richard Nelson, called Make Prayers to the Raven. Its gist is that these “animist” folks don’t revere an abstract Nature, nor do they see it as just a set of resources and logistical problems. They have relations to it, rather like the relations you might have with your partner’s family, or the neighbors, or your co-workers: a bit opaque, touchy, a mix of affection, obligation, and prudence. And these relations are specific—not with Nature, but with the salmon, or a river, or a tree. They are on many scales, again, much like our relations with individuals, institutions, countries, cultures, in our human-on-human lives. 
We can’t decide to be Athabascan, of course, but this strikes me as a promising direction for a realistic, open-minded ethical practice. It takes very seriously that we live with the rest of the world, and it can be a big pain in the ass, or even hurt or kill us, but it is also the only possible site and source of all the joys we can have... 
...In some respects, Anthropocene thinking is ecological thinking turned up to eleven, with a keen awareness not just of the practical relations among human and natural systems, but also of the values at stake in those. 
What I call a democratic Anthropocene is a way of naming the politics that could possibly be up to this situation. It’s about building movements and institutions that move toward an equal voice in shaping the planet. And it’s about building up the capacity to begin engaging in real collective self-constraint...
Jedidiah Purdy interviewed by Ross Andersen.

This goes a lot further and deeper than my ramble, Growing up in the Anthropocene

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Embryon philosophers


I have review essay on Alberto Manguel's Curiosity in The Guardian today. Here are some further notes.

as children...     Recalling a childhood very different from Kulka's, Annie Dillard writes
Everywhere, things snagged me. The visible world turned me curious to books; the books propelled me reeling back to the real world.
crows      These observations on Caledonian crows and children come via Alison Gopnik. For more on the cognitive abilities of crows see, e.g., Crows Understand Analogies.

the nature of desire      what can one sensibly add on this most contemplated topic? Samuel Johnson wrote: “the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it.” In Religion of the Future, Roberto Unger writes:
Our insatiability is rooted in our natural constitution. Human desires are indeterminate. They fail to exhibit the targeted and scripted quality of desire among other animals.Even when, as in addiction and obsession, they fix on particular objects, we make those particular objects serve as proxies for longings to which they have loose or arbitrary relation 
... It is not only to other people that we are ambivalent; it is also to our own desires because they are ours and not ours. This confusion enters into the experience of insatiability and endows it with its tortured and desperate quality,
endless distraction...an obesity of the mind  from here

new spaces new spaces for poetry. The unedited text continued:
A bacterium found on the rear end of a small worm in the deep ocean hints at the origin of complex (eukaryotic) life.  A telescope rivalling the great pyramids in size that is soon to be built in Chile will enable its creators to make sharp images of earth-like planets far away in the galaxy. Optogenetics and recently developed imaging techniques have enormous potential to increase understanding of the human brain, the most complex thing in the universe, and the treatment of disease. [1]
My response to that is: good for him.  The pre-edited text continued:
We are but embryon philosophers. The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swing open and reveal a wild what. [2]

Notes:

[1] The bacterium on the rear end of small worm deep in the ocean is Parakaryon myojinensis. See The Vital Question by Nick Lane. The telescope rivalling the great pyramids in size is the European Extremely Large Telescope. Its images will be 19 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space telescope and, it is claimed, able to show Earth-like planets in distant space.  See also this article about telescopes of the 2030s.  On recently developed [brain] imaging techniques see, for example, this article on optogenetics.

[2] embryon philosophers is from Thomas Browne. The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swing open is from Herman Melville.  The wild what is from Amy Leach.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"They want the forest to be happy"

Q. What aspects of the music did not prompt a universal response? 
A. We looked at whether the music evoked happy/joyful or sad/scary feelings, and got a positive/negative rating. We used music from three films: the melancholy theme from Schindler's List, the scary shower scene from Psycho and the upbeat Cantina scene tune from Star Wars. The Canadians reacted as you might expect.  The Mbenzélé...found all the music negative.
Q. Why might the Mbenzélé not like the Western music? 
A. All the pygmies' own music is highly arousing and positive. They feel negative emotions disrupt the harmony of the forest and they depend on the forest and so they want it to be happy.
from an interview with Stephen McAdams regarding his research into universals in music.

Mbenzélé music is mostly vocal, McAdams explains, with some clapping and beating on log drums. But is "of a sophistication comparable to Western symphonic music, with extraordinary polyphonies and polyrhythms."

For the Mbenzélé, music is functional. "They don't sit around and consume it. Music accompanies various kinds of activities."

I wrote briefly about the music of Mbenzélé (Babenzele) on page 128 of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Norm enforcement

For rebellious behaviour, slaves are pinned to the ground, and burned by degrees from the feet and hands, burning them gradually up to the head, whereby their pains are extravagant...For cries of a lesser nature Gelding [castration], or chopping off half of the foot with an Ax...For Negligence, they are whipt by the overseer with Lance-wood Switches, till they be bloody, and several of the Switches broken, being first tied up b the hands in the Mill-Houses...After they are whip'd till they are Raw, some put on their Skins Pepper and Salt to make them smart; at other times their Masters will drop Melted Wax on their skins and use several exquisite tortures.
from an 1698 account by Sir Hans Sloane about practices on sugar plantations in the West Indies, quoted by Andro Linklater in Owning the Earth (2013).

Slaves or sage slaves by Jerry Toner is insightful on the Roman institution of slavery, with only mild teases.

Friday, February 06, 2015

The Singular Universe


Here are a few additional notes and comments relating to a review of The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time published in The Guardian.

the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion      Health warning: cosmologists are not saying it is OK for you to be late. See, e.g., Sean Carroll.  See also The Now.

[added 16 February]: Time Reborn there is a fascinating critique of Time Reborn by Joe Boswell here

physicists in the academy groan     Smolin is based at the Perimeter Institute outside the academic system.  The quality of its people can be gauged in the commitment of its director Neil Turok to, e.g., education in Africa.

deep freedom     openDemocracy published an edited extract from Roberto Unger's Religion of the Future here.   See also his site and talks.

prophet – or...crank     Jeremy David Bendik-Keymer writes "Unger may think of his work as preparation for prophesy, but it ends up as pontification."

some essential points can be readily grasped     Lee Smolin has written a handy summary of key ideas for New Scientist. Roberto Unger outlines some in audio with A universe in which everything changes sooner or later.

It appears there will be some errors in the print version of my review.  For example, cosmic inflation is thought to have begun 10-37 seconds after the big bang, not 10-37.  Also, I think it is correct to say that Unger and Smolin are only saying that parts of this model are preposterous, not necessarily all of it.

For A New Map of Wonders I have blogged in connection with Unger here and Smolin here.

Bryan Appleyard reviewed The Singular Universe here (paywall)

Finally, Rilke's ninth Duino elegy has this:
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing

Image from The Landreader by Dominick Tyler

Monday, January 12, 2015

On Blake


I have contributed a comment to the blog for the Inspired by Blake* festival in Oxford, which begins on 18 January.   This follows a post for A New Map of Wonders last month.

Something that was new to me: early in his career Blake produced engravings for a report documenting the treatment of rebel slaves in Suriname.

* not this one

Image: via Guardian