This November I posted 30 finished pieces of writing on Everything2, on whatever I felt like writing about at the time. By doing so I completed the Iron Noder Challenge, which has been running every November since 2008. This was the first time I took part in earnest – making the effort to write and re-write for an hour or two almost every day, in order to average at least one post a day that I could be happy with. (more…)
This year I’ve found myself reading a bunch of books about the mind, the brain, and the nature of the self. For some reason I’m reading them all in parallel, picking one or the other depending on how I’m feeling on any given day, which is probably why I haven’t actually finished any of them yet. I’m loving them all, in different ways. I could probably do with spending more time talking to people about all this stuff, as well, which is one reason I’m posting this now rather than waiting till I’ve finished the books to write about them (although I will probably do that, too).
Here are a few words about what’s in the Mind/Brain section of the towering pile on my bedside table right now…Â Â Does anyone else have any thoughts about any of these, or interest in discussing them?
- Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett
I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get round to tackling this book; I’ve known for a long time that Dennett is a very compelling, interesting writer and thinker. I had the feeling that his thoughts about how the mind works have a lot of overlap with my own, but until this year I’d only ever read a few of the essays from his collection ‘Brainstorms’, which is excellent if somewhat repetitious. What surprised me when I finally picked this up was what an entertainingÂ writer he is.
- I am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter
I first met Hofstadter’s magnum opus, GÃ¶delÂ Escher Bach, when I was a kid – I was probably about twelve years old. I was enchanted, and I it may well have had a more profound influence on my thinking than any other single book, but in spite of that I could never finish it. It’s so much fun to dip into, especially the dialogues; but then its mathematical excursions are so involved, it can be hard to stay with it to the next flight of fancy without feeling like you’re either breaking your head or skimming too much. His later book covers much of the same ground – about the meaning of meaning, and how such a thing could possibly emerge from constituents that seem to obey the mathematical rules of physics – while avoiding most of those pitfalls. It’s dense, but never overwhelmingly so, and it’s just whimsical enough to make you smile without getting waylaid.
- The Feeling of What Happens, by Antonio Damasio
Damasio is a medical doctor and neurologist by training, and more than any of the other books I have been reading, this one is grounded in science, particularly the study of the human brain. His approach to thinking rightly takes in the whole body, though – he is very concerned with the importance of looking at the whole organism if we want to understand thought, the nature of the self, and particularly emotions. What I find odd is that he has essentially written a whole book about embodied cognition in a book which doesn’t list that term or embodiment in its index; he does briefly name-check Francesco Varela and Maturana, but rather a lot of the time he seems to be writing as if he hasn’t noticed that anybody has ever had similar ideas. His science is impeccable, but I’m thrown by his lack of engagement with existing philosophy. Then again, this is a short book – much the shortest of these four – and I know that some people switch off the moment they see the word ‘phenomenology’.
- Mind in Life, by Evan Thompson
This is probably the least accessible of the books in my stack, but still, the writing is lucid and uses no more jargon than it needs. This book was conceived as a follow-up to Thompson’s book with Varela and Eleanor Rosch, ‘The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience’, which I haven’t read. Â Thompson is rounding up relevant thoughts from all over science and philosophy, in order toÂ put togetherÂ a strong case for thinking about the mind as something arising from life; not something unique to the human brain, but a process naturally arising from and involving any organism – and also, in some sense, extending beyond it. It’s a grand project, and my sense is that it’s a very worthwhile one. This is a pretty fat book, though, written very clearly but without a great deal of levity, so I’m relying on sheer fascination value to carry me through. I think it will.
I am currently working part-time at Camellia’s Tea House, in Kingly Court, on Carnaby Street. It is the sort of place that immediately feels like a slice of heaven to a tea lover – you enter and there is one wall filled almost to the ceiling with caddies and big glass jars. There are about a hundred and twenty different teas and tisanes here, while the rest of the shop is filled with all kinds of different teapots and tea accessories, and enough tables that it is usually possible sit down and be comfortable. (more…)
I stayed for about two weeks in the town of Carballo, which is 35km from A CoruÃ±a, 45km from Santiago de Compostela and 10km from the nearest beach. It’s a small, quiet town full of empty buildings, half-finished or abandoned, slapped together with an obvious disregard for any kind of building code. Most of the bars are mostly empty most of the time, and presumably they couldn’t stay open at all if they had to pay the kind of rent you have to pay for premises in places where people want to live. There is life and music if you know where to look, though, and it’s an easy enough journey to the beautiful beaches.
A clear stream runs through Carballo, past the bus station. close to where I was staying, with fish and bats and dragonflies. It leads quickly out of the bricks and concrete, into the woods, like an artery. The air is fresh, and the hazelnuts you can pluck from the trees in late summer are like a taste of heaven.
The last night I was there, I was woken by a mighty rainstorm battering against the thin roof of my attic flat. It’s the rain, above all, that makes Galicia so gorgeous, once you get outside of its depressed not-quite-seaside towns – the rain that feeds its lush forests and sustains its wide green fields. The countryside throughout northern Iberia is stunning; you might miss the sunshine, but it’s worth getting wet for.
I spent much of this summer travelling overland around the Iberian Peninsula – the parts of the world commonly known as Spain and Portugal. I was teaching and looking after kids at a summer camp in the Basque Country for two weeks, and then I had about a week and a half travelling in a south-westerly direction before turning north to attend the ‘Bridges‘ conference on maths and art, in Coimbra, Portugal, where I was showing my interactive exhibit known as ‘Kenneth‘ and a large canvas print of one of my generative artworks. Finally I headed further north, to Galicia, and spent about two weeks there before looping around to the East and spending a couple of days in Bilbao before going on into France on the way back to Britain.
All of these places warrant proper writing about, but here are the major stops of my journey, in inevitably-misleading bullet-point, key-word form, in any case – if nothing else, this will act as memory aid for me:
- Las Rozas:
I crouch below the eyeline of the crowd
Half-watchingÂ Water dance, halfÂ in-camera.
The drumming and the wash-rags beating loud
I strive toÂ trap in electronicÂ amber.
With flashes or by squatting frozen-still
IÂ take away the movement of the night.
This festival ofÂ Nowness on the hill
Distilled inÂ slices,Â slides forÂ future sight.
The energy of life in human form
Is tumbling before me,Â painted red.
TheÂ spirit of the forest is reborn!
I’m turning dials and living in my head.
The bonfireÂ smokes the wastage of last year
And sparks a blaze in me – and now -Â I’m here.
Climate Camp (or the Camp for Climate Action, in full) is a reaction to the failures of our governments to take anything like the steps that science tells us will be necessary to avert catastrophic climate change, and to the failures of our democratic system to represent dissenting voices. When even majority opinions are readily ignored if they conflict with the plans of the ruling powers, people are encouraged to take politics into their own hands.
Sometimes I get seized by a vision of something I think I could cook, that I’ve never heard of anybody else cooking but which feels to me like it could be really, really good. Every now and then it turns out that I’m wrong, and my crazy ideas don’t add up to something delicious after all. Most of the time though, I find that I am right and make something I’m really happy with, like chocolate risotto with chestnuts and pears.
For once I pretty much know how much I used of each of the ingredients, because I followed the risotto essentials from the excellent mushroom risotto recipe (one of the few recipes I’ve ever actually followed as such) in The Vegetable Book, by Colin Spencer (one of my all-time favourite books). This provided a good-sized helping for three people, possibly greedy people. You could probably feed four average-sized stomachs without too much trouble. I would describe this as semi-sweet – enough so that it feels indulgent, but not insane, for this to constitute a main evening meal.
- 2/3 cup of arborio rice
- 2/3 cup of white wine and/or sweet sherry
- 150g of chestnuts (100g dried, reconstituted)
- Loads of cocoa. Um, about 50g maybe?
- 7 tbs of coconut oil, or a mix of oil and butter or whatever, if you’re not vegan – this may be more than is strictly necessary
- 4 pears
- A little salt
- The juice and rind of about half a lemon
Get the chestnuts ready to go, first – I used dried chestnuts that needed boiling for 10 minutes and then draining and clearing of a few bits of brown skin. You can probably get them in tins or cook fresh ones on an open fire, whatever works for you. They need to be in small pieces, so break them or chop it up quite finely. Once they’re ready you need to chop up the pears into smallish chunks, ready to go.
Melt the coconut oil and add the pears together with the chestnuts, lemon, salt and spices,Â then once they’ve started to soften add the rice and cocoa. Mix well, so the rice starts to take up the flavours around it, then add 1 and a quarter cups of hot water and bring to the boil. Simmer with the lid on for eight minutes, then let it stand for five. Check that the rice is well cooked – if it’s not, you might need to add a little more water and turn the heat back on for a bit.
Note: Although this was off the top of my head, I’m not the first to have invented it. I’m okay with that.
My brother, Leo Murray, is an animator as well as an activist. He made this film for his animation master’s degree at the Royal College of Arts, and I was very impressed indeed with the job he did of communicating the science, visually and verbally – beautiful use of animation to convey scientific concepts, and an interesting blackboard-inspired style. The full script includes extensive journal references to back up what he’s saying.
I maintain the web page for the film, though I didn’t do most of the design. I have also helped to coordinate the translations, which now exist for most of the major European languages, with several Asian versions on their way too. It’s been great to see it get watched online by well over 100,000 people, but this is still not nearly enough – the message is very important indeed, and this film conveys it remarkably well, packing a whole lot of information into a very short time in a very watchable style. At this point it would be particularly valuable if people could spread the word more outside of the English-speaking world.
What this is about is that climate change is probably a much bigger threat than anybody realised even a few years ago. We’ve been hearing more and more about it in the news, but I think it’s still not so clear to most people why – I suspect the increased coverage is often written off as media hype, rather than a reflection of the fact we really ought to be much more worried than we thought we needed to be.
The IPCC’s last report erred very much on the conservative side, as is the nature of reports which must be agreed to by all parties. Newer evidence had trouble getting fitted in, so it did not really even try to assess the importance of positive feedback loops in all of this, which has only recently started to become clear. Essentially, there is good reason to think that some of the changes caused by warming will feed back into themselves to cause more warming, potentially leading to runaway climate change in a frighteningly short time – we’re talking several degrees of warming over just a few decades here, and possibly less than ten years to effect the changes needed to prevent this from happening.
There is of course some uncertainty in all of this, and it may yet turn out that the situation is not nearly as bad as it looks… and that’s really just as well, because if it is as bad as it looks, I don’t much fancy humankind’s chances of doing what we need to before it’s too late. It’s not too late yet though…
I think most people don’t pay nearly enough attention to what they’re walking on, especially in cold weather. The richness of the patterns that ice forms is staggering, and provides an intriguing glimpse into the physical processes going on both at a molecular level and on a much larger scale. Some of the most fun shapes emerge when the temperature varies enough so that ice alternates with water, and flow patterns meet crystal dendrites.
I have two theories about the sort of sideways icicles we sometimes see. Either they come from ice that has cracked and water has seeped through and refrozen, or they are caused by fingers of ice crystal which get a head start on the rest of the puddle for some reason – most likely, some facet of the surface they’re growing on just happens to provide a perfect nucleation point, and the crystals grow out from there because there’s nowhere else for them to get a foothold. Even though this starts at the level of water molecules forming neat little piles too tiny for any microscope to pick apart, in the right conditions these minuscule fingers of crystal just grow bigger and bigger…
Some bubbles usually form in ice as it’s freezing. These are due to the presence of dissolved air in the water, which is no longer able to stay dissolved when it gets colder, so it migrates into pockets as the water freezes around it. Bubbles like these, trapped in the Antarctic ice core, tell us what the air on Earth has been like over hundreds of thousands of years, providing the strongest evidence that the temperature on Earth varies in proportion to the amount of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. We know, for instance, that levels of carbon dioxide and methane are higher, and rising faster, than they have been in 800,000 years.
Larger bubbles also form under ice when it starts to melt from beneath, forming a space between the frozen layer and the water underneath. This process is dominated by the formation of liquid water, dripping and surface tension coming to the fore, so rather than the complex, angular crystals associated with freezing, we see the air forming in great bubbles and voluptuous curves.
The patterns formed by frost depend on a number of factors – the relative temperature of the air and the ground and how much they vary, the speed of the wind and the level of moisture, and so on. Another factor is the nature of the surface the frost forms on – sometimes frost closely follows the lines of the surface, and sometimes it forms much more quickly in some spots than others, where imperfections in a smooth surface get the crystallisation process started. The patterns formed can give us insight into hidden features of the surface below, the subtleties we see speaking of deeper subtleties beyond our perception…
a quickr pickr post