All posts by ferrous

On Independence

I’m not a nationalist. I thought I should get that out of the way at the start. I don’t think nation states are a good thing to base political structures around, and I was raised to view expressions of patriotism with deep suspicion. What I am is a localist, or a decentralist. Concentrations of power breed corruption and indifference, and they cannot help but disempower individuals and communities. There may be justifications for that, but the presumption should always be in favour of decisions being made as close as possible to the people affected by them.

So I would want to hear some good reasons why it was a good idea for Scotland to be ruled from Westminster before I’d accept that it should be. I have never really heard any*. The closest I’ve known anyone to come up with is that it’s just so much easier staying with the status quo, and radical change is so unpredictable. It would be, and it is. But the status quo is a train wreck, and profound change is the only thing that can get us out of it, however scary that might be.

As an experiment in representative democracy, the parliament at Westminster is a failure. That is, it is neither representative, nor democratic. The British public is overwhelmingly to the left of the main, supposedly left-wing opposition party’s policies on a wide range of issues, and the Scottish public is in many ways well to the left of that. But the mainstream of Westminster politics has an incredible momentum to it, largely thanks to the idiocy of our first-past-the-post electoral system, and Labour is too timid and seemingly too unimaginative to oppose any but the very worst aspects of austerity and capitalist economics. The Green Party is far bolder, constantly pushing for genuine, positive change with well-thought out economic policies, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities that Left Unity, or one of those other attempts at grand unification of the left might get somewhere some time, but the system is stacked against them, and the mainstream media make it even harder.

For a long time, my biggest misgiving about Scotland breaking away from the rest of Britain was that it would shift Westminster’s centre of political gravity even further to the right, removing a huge chunk of the support that the Labour Party has been able to take for granted. I don’t worry about that so much any more, because Labour have done so little to justify it in the last twenty years; if losing the Scottish vote helps jolt them out of their complacency, it might even work out for the best for the rest of the UK, too.

The Scottish independence vote is an opportunity for the people of Scotland not to be ruled by tories ever again, unless its population somehow drifts incredibly much further to the right. It’s also the only chance we’re likely to get, any time soon, to experiment with genuinely different ways of doing things. Maybe those experiments will be abject failures, but so is the political economy we’ve inherited – and either way, it’s about time the people of Scotland got the chance to fail, or succeed, on our own terms.

* The strongest argument I’ve heard for a No vote, in fact, is that the deal currently on the table gives insufficient economic independence to Scotland, leaving control of the currency in the hands of Westminster and the bank of England.

Magnet Mushroom

At the end of 2013 Sonny Hallett and I invented a game. We’re calling it Magnet Mushroom, and you can play it too if you have an iron or steel tray, a bunch of magnets and some small pieces made of iron or steel. We used a baking tray, a pack of polished magnetite from a museum shop and the leftover metal bits from some Ikea bookshelves.

Here are the rules:

  1. Each player gets an equal set of magnets and metal bits.
  2. Take turns to place a magnet, with as many bits of metal as you like, on the tray, or on something which is already on the tray.
  3. If any magnet touches the tray during your turn, you lose. The last player to place a piece wins.
  4. At the end of a round, collect back all your pieces.
  5. The winner starts the next round.

Some Magnet MushroomsThe most basic move is a simple mushroom: a magnet stood on an upright metal piece. Because the metal becomes instantly magnetised, the magnet sits on it quite stably, however unlikely the configuration might look.

In fact, it is possible to make a mushroom two or three pieces tall and only moderately unstable. You can also support a magnet on two or three pieces, making it more stable, or attach more metal to the top or sides for added interest.

The challenge of the game comes mainly from the fact that every magnet is attracted or repelled by every other magnet – if you place one mushroom too close another, those forces will pull them down in an instant. There is a surprising amount of strategy involved in leaving the board in a stable enough configuration not to fall down, but unstable enough to make things difficult for the next player. Much of the fun of the game also comes from the creation of beautiful and wildly improbable-looking structures.

Some Magnet MushroomsThe simplest version of the game uses similar magnets and identical metal pieces, but if you want to mix things up a bit – or you run out of the pieces you started with – you can open it up by using  more different pieces. Experiment with it! Let me know what you come up with.

Extended Magnet Mushrooms

Our Chief Mistakes

And How to Fix Them

Sometimes I like to imagine that people in general are capable of being swayed by strong arguments, and changing their behaviour when it becomes clear they have been making a terrible mistake. In that spirit, here is a list of things that Western society is clearly getting wrong, and strategies for correcting our errors.

This list is not exhaustive, of course. I am focusing here on our political economy, rather than democratic reform or aspects of social justice that go well beyond that, partly because many of the problems in those arenas are fed by economic inequality, but mainly because they bring in thornier questions with less clear resolutions.  I want to stick to a few things which are generally taken for granted by our politicians and mainstream media outlets, even though they are evidently wrong, and fixable. The fact they are taken for granted might have to do with the dominance of vested interests, inertia or sheer incompetence, but in the end, it goes on because we have been letting them get away with peddling this rubbish.

1. Money and markets can never measure the value of everything.

Photo by David Muir.

Markets are reasonably good at assessing the value of certain types of goods, in relatively equal societies. Unfortunately they are hopeless at taking account of any value or cost which cannot be easily tied to a monetary transaction. In highly unequal societies, they also skew priorities radically towards the very rich. Meanwhile, maximising profits often means artificially restricting access to good things. The more we marketise, the more this happens.

These simple, inescapable truths make the entire neoliberal project, which seeks to make markets the arbiter of all things, destructive, inefficient and ultimately futile.  Neoliberalism remains a central assumption of our political discourse not because it makes sense, but through the prominence of voices pushing it forwards, and the historical defeat of Communism, wrongly seen as its main ideological competition.

We can and must get past this by insisting on the importance of things which cannot be monetised without destroying or degrading them, and acknowledging the logical limits of markets.

2. There is no excuse for companies making profit their sole aim.

It’s not even good capitalism. If the only choice we had was between shareholder returns trumping all other considerations, or else state control of everything, it might make sense to choose the former. In fact, however, there are many other possibilities.

There is a strong case to be made for insisting that private corporations make something other than profit their central goal – providing the best possible services in their field, for example – and instituting independent oversight to make them accountable for pursuing that goal.

There is an even stronger case for encouraging the growth of cooperatives. Evidence shows that they employ more people, make them more satisfied, and have more space for ethical considerations alongside financial ones. They are also inherently far more democratic.

In particular, when it comes to natural monopolies – transport networks, distribution networks for power, water and so on – normal market principles like competition simply do not work. At best, regulators can try to bodge them back into place. It is beyond eccentric to expect companies in such positions to do a good job of serving the public as a side-effect of the pursuit of profit, especially given almost all experiences of privatisation to date.

3. GDP growth is a lousy measure of the health of an economy.

Gross Domestic Product is a convenient measure of the size of an economy, but as a proxy for the well-being or even the wealth of a population, its use is indefensible, and not only because of the inability of money to assess value.  Relatedly, limitless growth of GDP is clearly impossible, yet the assumption that it is necessary goes on underlying the political and economic narratives put forward by politicians and the media.

An income-adjusted figure might be a great deal more useful. Recognising the obvious fact that £1000 makes a lot more difference to someone earning £10,000 a year than it does to someone who already makes £1,000,000 suggests a straightforward but revolutionary modification of GDP: weigh changes in income in inverse proportion to their starting point. This would still leave out all the non-monetary aspects of a real economy, but it would at least give us a reasonable starting point. Other approaches to measuring the success of an economy include ‘Gross National Happiness‘ and other efforts to measure well-being, as well as direct measures of inequality.

4. The dole as we know it is unavoidably counterproductive.

Our current system makes payments conditional on claimants regularly jumping through humiliating hoops, and not benefiting from part-time work. It doesn’t need to.

An unconditional basic income, or Citizen’s Income, paid to everyone regardless of circumstances, would almost certainly be vastly more efficient. It would save on administration and lead to more productive work being done, by making the price of employing people more closely reflect its objective cost. Unfortunately, it would be quite a radical break from the way things are done now, and our politicians have become terrified of doing  or even suggesting anything radical at all, however clearly sensible. This would, of course,  be less of a problem if the status quo wasn’t manifestly broken.

All of this naturally leads on to the even bigger question of what we should do about the failings of representative democracy and existing structures of media ownership and control – but as I said at the beginning, I wanted to focus for now on things which are clearly fixable.

We can get onto the thornier questions later…

Project Wild Thing

Project Wild ThingNow free to view.

Kids in Britain don’t play outside so much these days. Where our parents were left to roam at will, and their parents wandered much further still, the children of the early twenty-first century are mostly kept indoors. It isn’t safe to go out – the traffic is dreadful, kids have terrible accidents, everyone knows that the streets are packed with paedophiles and murderers. Nobody knows their neighbours well enough to be sure they won’t eat their kids if they get half a chance.

What would kids do outdoors, anyway, even if they make it that far? Why would they want to play in the grass and shrubs, up and under the trees, when they can stay at home and spend their time playing on computers and smartphones?

This is a problem, if you believe that humans need time with nature to stay sane and physically healthy – and I think the evidence is strong. This is why David Bond appointed himself Marketing Director for nature, and made this film, Project Wild Thing. Marketing nature might be a faintly obnoxious concept, but it’s not hard to see where he’s coming from. The outside world, with its bugs and its plants and its dirt, has to compete for the attention of our children (and adults) against a vast array of highly profitable, heavily advertised consumer goods and activities. What chance does it have?

Bond, the director and star of the film, talks to a range of marketing and branding consultants to brainstorm and market-test ideas on how to ‘sell’ nature to a generation that sometimes seems to have trouble seeing the point of it, and to parents who might think it’s a nice idea, but worry about the dangers of letting their children go wild. The conceit works, as something to hang a film off, and helps to generate some solid practical ideas, but it also underlies its main problems – the film is heavily dominated by upper-middle-class white men, often talking about branding. This is bound to make some viewers wince, understandably, and it’s not clear that it helps that many of the kids he talks to are brown-skinned and often female.

He also talks to a number of conservationists, naturalists and activists, including wildlife presenter Chris Packham and Jay Griffiths, the author of ‘Kith‘, as well as my brother Leo, who talks about outdoors play non-profit Monkey-Do. All make very good points about human nature and our relationships with risk, play and the outdoors, feeding into the strategies suggested for getting kids playing outside.

The film is informative, infuriating and really very entertaining, but I am glad to say it is just one result of the whole process. They also put together a simple, nicely designed app for smartphones, ‘WildTime‘, designed to provide a wealth of ideas about how to engage with the natural world, for anyone for whom it doesn’t seem obvious (and for many children, itisn’t obvious until they actually get out there). Perhaps most importantly, The Wild Network is a growing group of organisations concerned with connecting kids with nature, including the RSPB, the National Trust, the NHS Sustainable Development Unit and hundreds of others. Perhaps these trends can be reversed yet, both in Britain and around the world, but it’s going to take a lot of work yet.


Photo by only alice

I started listening to podcasts regularly some time early this year, when I finally got round to installing software for it on my phone (Podkicker). I’d previously been a regular BBC Radio 4 listener at various times in my life, and started pulling together the Everything2 podcast a few years ago, but it was only with dedicated software that I got into the habit of listening to spoken-word recordings on public transport, as well as while doing the washing up or going to sleep.

After a little while of this, I realised that I was listening to a huge amount of very interesting stuff, but without keeping any record I couldn’t be sure how much of it I was really taking in. That’s when I started the OolongListens twitter account – to keep a record of my own listening, to help cement what I learn by keeping notes, and to share what I listen to with anyone interested. Perhaps you will enjoy it. Most of what I listen to is factual programming, often with a scientific or otherwise educational bent, and most of it turns out to be from the BBC, but there’s quite a lot from other broadcasters and private podcasters too.

Ionic Bonding

What Ionic Bonding Is

Ionic bonding is the type of chemical bonding that binds non-metals with metals, and occasionally other things*, forming ionic compounds. An ion is just an atom (or sometimes a molecule) with an overall electric charge – many atoms and molecules have exactly as many electrons as they have protons, so the charges cancel out; when that doesn’t hold true, we end up with ions.

Metals are prone to losing electrons from their outside shell, leaving them with a positive charge; non-metals often pick up additional electrons from somewhere, filling up their outside shell and leaving them with a negative charge. Opposite charges attract, so electric forces tend to cause these positive and negative ions to stick together. Since those forces radiate out in all directions, you don’t just get one positive ion (or cation) bonding with one negative ion (or anion) – any more ions that happen by get pulled in, too. There’s always a sweet spot where the pushing and pulling of the ions balances out, allowing new ions to slot neatly into any existing structure. That neatness gives a very regular lattice-like pattern to the solid – in other words, ionic compounds form crystals.

Ionic bonding illustrated
A crystallisation of some of these ideas by the brilliant Sonya Hallett

What Ionic Bonding Isn’t

It’s worth saying something about some common misconceptions about ionic bonding. If you have learned about it before, you may have been told that an ionic bond is what you get when a metal ion donates an electron to a non-metal. This description has a pleasing simplicity to it, but it is really very misleading. For one thing, ionic bonding typically holds together many atoms at once. This is in contrast to the covalent bonds** that hold non-metals together, where the bonding is down to each atom sharing electrons with its neighbours, which leads to the formation of well-defined molecules. Ionic compounds are not really made of molecules at all, just big crystalline structures.

The other thing wrong with the electron-donation picture is that the ions have usually gained or lost electrons long before they ever meet – for many elements, like sodium and the other alkali metals, it is rare to find them any other way on Earth. Less reactive metals may have been exposed to ionising radiation, or lost an electron or two in a collision. Reactive non-metals have a tendency to pick up any free electrons they bump into, whatever the source, because they fit nicely into the geometry of their outside shells.

Ionic Compounds

Ionic compounds are characteristically hard, usually with high melting points, and very brittle. The hardness and high melting points are down to their crystal structure; as long as the lattice holds, they are solid and quite strongly bonded. However, since the crystal is made of alternating positive and negative ions, a knock that causes one layer to get out of alignment with the next will often lead to cations lining up with cations, and anions with anions, producing a repulsive force that tears the crystal apart – hence the brittleness. Metals, which also have a crystalline structure, don’t suffer from this problem, which is why they are much more malleable.

Many ionic compounds are soluble in water. This is because water molecules are polar, in the sense that they have more positive charge on one side than the other. A negative ion will attract the positive ends of water molecules, and when it collects enough water molecules that way, their collective attraction can overcome its bonding with its ionic neighbours and carry the ion away. The positive ions dissolve much the same way. All these positive and negative ions allow a solution, to conduct electricity – distilled water is actually an electrical insulator, whereas salt water conducts extremely well. Molten salts and other ionic liquids conduct in the same way. There is a useful complication to the way ions in a liquid conduct electricity – because the charge is carried by two kinds of ions travelling through space, not just free-floating electrons like you get in a metal, they tend to separate over time – cations are attracted to cathodes, and anions to anodes. This process, known as electrolysis, makes it possible to extract the constituent elements of a salt; sodiumpotassiumcalcium and various other elements were first isolated in this way.

* Sometimes polyatomic cations, like ammonium, can play the part usually played by metal atoms.

**We should note here that there is not really a sharp distinction between covalent and ionic bonds. Many covalent bonds are polar, meaning that the electrons are shared unevenly between the atoms, so that one of the atoms acquires a positive charge, and the other a negative one – these bonds can be considered to be a bit ionic. Similarly, ionic bonds can be considered mildly covalent when electrons get shared between atoms, which they inevitably do. Metallic bonding is sometimes considered a form of covalent bonding, but sometimes not – the shared electrons are more like a sea than a set of pairs. Chemistry gets pretty messy when you look close enough.


This piece also appears on Everything2.

The Everyday Signs of Light Waves

Light, like all the basic constituents of our universe, seems to be made of waves. Waves that act a bit like particles, sometimes, but which spread out and interfere with each other just like other waves.

It’s about 200 years since physicists finally agreed that light behaves like a wave, after Poisson proved himself wrong with an ingenious experiment involving a surprising bright spot in the shadow of a disc. We could have come to that conclusion much sooner, if we had known what we were looking for, but nobody really thought about interference patterns very much in those days.

Francesco Maria Grimaldi coined the term ‘diffraction’ in the 1660s, to describe his observation that light spreads out when it passes through a small hole. If you put a piece of paper in the path of the light you see a bright disc surrounded by increasingly large and faint rings. It looks something like this (the outer rings are fainter in real life, though):

Those dark rings are where the light waves coming from one part of the hole interfere destructively with those coming from the other side – the peaks of one meet the troughs of the other. The bright areas are where the peaks meet and combine. Grimaldi didn’t quite figure all of that out, although he did come to something like a wave theory of light.

Hooke and Huygens both worked on mathematical theories of light waves around that time too, but Newton published a theory of optics based on light consisting of particles (or ‘corpuscles’). It more or less worked, and given the towering nature of Newton’s scientific achievements, it isn’t surprising that people just sort of went along with that until the early 19th century, when it was conclusively disproved.

Once we realise that light is wavy, it becomes possible to explain quite a few observations which are otherwise a bit mysterious. Here are some of the things you might have noticed in your life, which are all inexplicable if you don’t know that light is made of waves which can interfere with each other.


SlickThe colours that we see when oil floats on the surface of water come about because the film is thin enough, and close enough to a constant depth, that light reflected from the bottom interferes with light reflected from the top. Since different colours have different wavelengths, they interfere to different degrees depending on tiny variations in the thickness of the film, and the angle of the light. A related effect explains the iridescence of certain beetles and butterflies.

Supernumerary Rainbows

A sunset rainbow over LondonRainbows, and even double rainbows, can be explained by simple refraction – the light changing speed and direction as it passes through a medium, in this case water. That itself doesn’t prove that light isn’t a particle, but some rainbows have additional, narrower bands of colour inside the main bow – and those are entirely puzzling until you understand that they are caused by interference. The explanation is in the diffraction of light bouncing from fine raindrops, which creates a series of increasingly faint inner rings. The smaller the droplets, the bigger the spacing is between the rings, which is the general rule in all kinds of diffraction. This means that unless they are all much the same size, the effect gets smeared out with different rings overlapping, and we don’t see the supernumerary bows at all.


CoronaWhen the moon shines through thin clouds, or a layer of fog, there is often a bright area around it, fringed by bands of colour. Again, this only happens when the droplets of the cloud are particularly consistent in size – if the size varies from one part of the cloud to another we get a patchwork of colours referred to as iridescent clouds. With sunlight these effects tend to happen where the light is too bright to make out the colours, while with the moon, the light is too faint for our colour vision to work at full capacity. The best way to see these beautiful effects in their full glory is to wear sunglasses, and look at the thin clouds around the sun while blocking the sun itself from your view.

Nacreous clouds

Nacreous Clouds 1Far rarer than the corona and a good deal more spectacular, nacreous clouds are also the result of diffraction. The difference is that rather than droplets of liquid water, the light of nacreous clouds are diffracted through stratospheric ice crystals. Usually the stratosphere is too dry to form clouds at all, and not quite cold enough, but when it drops below about 85°C, and especially when moist air is lifted up from the troposphere by gales down below, great wave-shaped clouds of fine ice crystals can form, with amazing colours that are often at their most vivid just before dawn and just after dusk.


Balloon glory atmospheric opticsSpeaking of glory, if you ever get to look down at your shadow (or your aeroplane’s shadow) in mist or clouds of the right consistency, you will see something called a glory, which looks very much like a corona surrounding your shadow in the mist. Your shadow, meanwhile, is likely to take on an eerie shape known as Brocken’s spectre.

Net curtains

When net curtains, or umbrellas, are made with sufficiently thin and uniform fabric, it is quite common to see diffraction fringes around light sources. The shape of these is characteristic of a square diffraction grating, and closely analogous to some of the patterns seen in x-ray crystallography.

Water drops

abstract yellowIf you get the chance to look through a drop of water at an unfocused point of light somewhere behind it – through a window or a pair of glasses, for example – you are likely to see a caustic projected on the back of your eyeball. Around the edges and cusps, where the light is bent back on itself, we can sometimes see quite rich and occasionally colourful interference fringes.

Water droplets

A different but related effect is sometimes seen through a fine mist of water on a glass pane, or an eye that is covered with the right kind of gunk. There is a hazy ring around light sources, and then the darker and lighter fringes that are characteristic of diffraction. Occasionally the same effect can be seen in a dusty mirror.


When we look at a bright, featureless area, it is common to see what look like translucent objects floating across our fields of vision. These are the shadows of loose cells and other tiny pieces of debris passing close to our retinas, and they are often on the right scale to show noticeable diffraction fringes around their edges.

Once you know what to look out for, the wave nature of light is easy to see. All these little oddities in the behaviour of light make perfect sense when you know that light – just like water waves and sound waves – bends when it passes from one medium to another, spreads out around barriers, and shows areas of greater and lesser intensity where waves reinforce or cancel each other out.

Iron Noder

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. Continue reading Iron Noder

Reading about Thinking

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… Does anyone else have any thoughts about any of these, or interest in discussing them?

  1. 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 entertaining writer he is.
  2. I am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter
    I first met Hofstadter’s magnum opus, Gödel, 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.
  3. 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’.
  4. 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. Thompson is rounding up relevant thoughts from all over science and philosophy, in order to put together 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.