Friday, October 29, 2010

On open letters

I read books - lots of them.  Often I think I should write to the authors about some of the things they say, or about areas of my own experience that seem to run parallel or counter to theirs.  I normally don't do so because I think these authors will be far to busy to bother with my meanderings.  Also I have twice written to authors only to be advised that they had recently died.

So, my plan now is to put open letters, if I think I have something worth saying, into one another of my blogs rather than write to authors direct.  If I include the name of the writer and the name of the book and its topic there may be some faint hope that they will pick up my comments and respond as might others who know them or have read their work. 

I don't like to flatter myself with the thought that my views will be available for anyone with access to the Internet to see, but they will.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The nightmare plant

For many years we have had a plant of sacred bamboo Nandina domestica growing by the wall outside our back door.

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In Japan, if you have a nightmare, the custom is to go and tell the sacred bamboo plant so that it will take away any residual difficulties from the dream.  Perhaps that is why this plant has strangely anguished-looking foliage.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Psychogeog round Bevendean,Brighton, UK

Yesterday in the August rain Jeremy Linden and I went to Meadowview in Bevendean on the eastern outskirts of the city of Brighton and, starting from map ref TQ33220608, we walked eastwards along a corridor of the Bevendean Down Local Nature Reserve (below) to the Race Hill footpath.

20100825 Meadowview & various 014

Here we turned south and then up the hill past the race horses to the summit with its magnificent views across Brighton and the racecourse to the sea.  Close to the top of Race Hill on an unmade cul-de-sac is an isolated row of terrace houses called Bellevue Cottages built in the mid- to late 19th century.

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On the side wall of the blue cottage the owner had painted some impressive zodiacal devices.

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After Bellevue we made the long trek down Bear Road with the cemetery wall on the right and open fields on the left, but much traffic in between.  At Bevendean Road we turned north and explored the Tenantry Estate - all new houses and turfed grassland built on the former Bevendean Hospital and its grounds.

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The name 'Tenantry' comes from Tenantry Down and the area is in one of the former land divisions of Brighton known as 'laines'.  The people who named the new roads have established or invented a connection with Mrs Fitzherbert (Fitzherbert Road) who secretly married George IV when he was still Prince of Wales.  Another road is named after Martha Gunn who was famed as mistress of the bathing machines and also acquainted with the Prince of Wales.  However, I have failed to deconstruct the name Borrow King Close for one of the streets (below).

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Beside Bevendean Road on the eastern side of the Tenantry estate the gates with their pillars of the old Bevendean Hospital have been left as a rather grand reminder of the history of the area.

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The man and the dog above are Jeremy and Willow.  And below is a picture of me, also with Willow and eating a cheese and onion roll.  Delicious!

20100825 Patrick & Willow at Meadowview, Brighton

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Stinging nettles through faded curtains

The strong July sun falls from the east on to our large room curtains silhouetting the nettles in the border outside.  The curtains are faded now and torn or threadbare in places, but they do.

The garden is unkempt but some like it that way, especially the stinging nettles.  All I have time for now is to keep a path open to the far end and back by a different route.

There are many compensations like this out-of-focus pattern on the old fabric which moves gently as the breeze catches the nettle plants.

20100710 SV nettle shadows on curtains

Winter will take the plants away and leave just the worn material and the memory of sunshine.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A trip to Derbyshire

On 17 May 2010 (our son's 35 birthday), I found myself at Chesterfield station in Derbyshire with a little time of my hands.

To my surprise I discovered a statue of George Stephenson (supposedly one of our distant relatives) of Rocket fame outside the station entrance.

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Stephenson died in Chesterfield and is buried in the nearby churchyard at the church with its famous crooked spire.

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The bronze statue was erected in in 2005 to mark the opening of the new station entrance hall with a man who was so instrumental in the establishment of travel by train.

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I wandered psychogeographically round the precincts of the station entrance admiring the solid red brick architecture.

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And the intricacy of the view up Corporation Street from Crow Lane.

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I also enjoyed the sight and sweetly pungent smell of a flowering dwarf broom hedge (possibly Cytisus x praecox 'Allgold').

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Soon though I was speeding through the Derbyshire Dales countryside at its late spring best en route to East Lodge Hotel, Rowsley (near Chatsworth).

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The teddy bear isn't mine - just part of the hotel service.

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

On a Richard Dawkins review

In the Times Literary Supplement for 11 February 2009, Richard Dawkins reviews a book by Professor Jerry Coyne called Why evolution is true published by Oxford University Press.  Dawkins is sufficiently persuasive to have induced me to order a copy, so I might dare to say a bit more after I have read it.

While I have been happy since childhood to believe, alongside Professor Coyne, that evolution is true, I often feel that the leaders in the field are suggesting that nothing about the mechanisms of evolution remain unresolved.  It is encouraging therefore to read in a paper by Antónia Monteiro and Ondrej Podlaha (2010) from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University "There is still much to do in order to fully understand how novel complex traits evolve. ....  it is important to continue exploring the full complement of genes that are shared across multiple traits to identify gene clusters that may be behaving as an integrated and context-insensitive network of genes."

Another remark in Dawkins review also puzzles me, though I am sure there is an explanation out there somewhere.  He wrote "One of Coyne’s graphs shows a genus of radiolarians (beautiful protozoans with minute, lantern-like shells) caught in the act, two million years ago, of “speciating” – splitting into two species."  Apart from the fact that it seems a bit odd for a genus (presumably of many species) to split into two species, I cannot quite grasp the evolutionary processes involved in this double take.  Did half the population of said radiolarian suddenly change into another species.  If so, the factor that triggered this was presumably endogenous and must have been present before the radiolarians changed.  And why didn't they all change?  Can a trait-changer spread throughout many individuals of a species before it goes live?  And if it can, would it be switched on simultaneously (like the flowering of the bamboo) across all individuals possessing it?  Or did just one example of the newly evolved species appear and successfully spread its genes down the generations by hybridising with its unevolved congenerics?

I would also humbly point out that there are many groups of species apparently speciating, or evolving, right now - no need to go back 2 million years.  Though why some groups are doing this, and others not needs some explaining.  "Right chaps, its a nice day, let's do a bit of evolving."

Dawkins also debunks belief in a moon god by saying that "science predicts, with complete certainty unless the end of the world intervenes, that the city of Shanghai will experience a total eclipse of the sun on July 22, 2009."

Although it is implied in Dawkins's remark, I don't think science can yet predict where evolution will have taken life on earth (if it survives) in a few million years time,  Predicting an eclipse involves a good data set, some geometry and arithmetic (plus faith in inductive reasoning).  It seems to me to be impossible to account for all the significant variables in areas like ecology and evolution with sufficient confidence to be able to predict the future accurately over even very short time scales.

REFERENCES

Coyne, J. (2009) Why Evolution is True.  Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (2009)  Dawkins on Darwin.  Times Literary Supplement 11 February 2009.

Monteiro, A. & Podlaha, O. (2009) Wings, Horns, and Butterfly Eyespots: How do Complex Traits Evolve?  PLoS Biol 7(2): e1000037. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000037

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rural psychogeography

I was recently introduced, by my son Charles, to the realm of psychogeography, something I really should have known about as it has been going on for years and, according to some, has almost exhausted its possibilities.  Usually though it is to do with urban wandering, so the rural dimension is, perhaps, a rare variant.

However, urban or rural, it is new and interesting to me.  I won't try and define what it is because it is easy to look up on the Internet, but I have appended below one of many examples of the genre penned by myself without knowing what I was doing.

Solvitur ambulando, it is solved by walking, a Latin phrase normally attributed to St Augustine of Hippo.  But quite what is solved by walking I am not sure, though it sounds good.

Anyway, here is my rural psychogeographic text (from 2001):

8 July 2001 (A walk from Coleford in the Forest of Dean where I was staying for a couple of days with David and Vicki Thornton. I got up early one Sunday morning and, since everyone else was asleep, wandered off with an Ordnance Survey map then wrote the results down when I returned. I had it in mind that these little voyages of exploration might become a travel book called ‘Walker’.)

1. The beginning of Walker

A hot and humid July morning with heavy banks of dark grey cloud mottled with lighter areas and pale golden hollows and valleys. Walker set off westward past the purplish stone non-conformist chapels with their high geometric facades saying “this is the face of God.” From some the sound of muffled hymns escaped into churchyards, car-parks and gardens as though it was not to be confined by walls, however high.

The road ran under the tall brick arch of a long-disused railway bridge and wound past stone houses and cottages deeper into the limestone valley of Whitecliff, with its quarry hidden among the trees heavy in their high summer green. Meadow brown butterflies flopped among the grasses and brambles that scrambled over the ancient field walls. Many of the pastures were horizontally ribbed with sheep walks but, apart from a shorn flock on the hillside near Millend Farm, no sheep were seen due to their all having recently been slaughtered in the foot & mouth epidemic – a disaster that had hit the Forest of Dean particularly hard.

At the junction of the lanes near Whitecliff Farm, opposite the quarry-workers’ cottages with their lovingly tended gardens, great rope-like vines of traveller’s joy climbed high into the pine trees and were being used as supports for the hop-plants now getting towards the limit of their summer growth. These hops had once, no doubt, been used for some long-extinct local beer made, perhaps, by the quarry workers themselves for the heroic thirsts their labours must have generated.

The valley deepened along Millend Lane with meadowsweet and hogweed indicating the line of a brook and, at one place, there was a view towards Newland church that would have made homesick expatriates fall to their knees and weep so perfect was the undulating harmony of grass, tree, stone and sky.

At Scatterford Farm, Walker turned south east up the hill towards Clearwell looking back from time to time into the small valley to the north. Clearwell appeared as a row of white council houses overlooking the same valley and a fine prospect of rolling, wooded Dean hills. At Lower Cross it was north into Pingry Lane, climbing the steep hill that heads over the ridge towards the ancient moat and fishponds. The heat of the day had now increased substantially and bounced from the road and from the high banks with their chocolate-coloured earth. Walker’s forehead was wet with sweat and a squadron of dark flies gathered above, darting and whining through the shimmering air.

At length the main Bream to Coleford road appeared with its wide, grassy verge and hurrying traffic that drove the flies away to search for cattle and horses in more tranquil pastures. Beside the road 100 metres south of the traffic lights a dark square in the tarmac showed where a heavy iron drain cover had been removed, presumably by vandals as there was no sign of it in the vicinity. Walker, like any other thinking person, saw the potentially lethal danger of this gaping black hole. The cars approached the lights at some speed, many no doubt hoping to cross the junction before they changed to red and, if a wheel had gone into the drain’s gape, the car could have turned over and slewed across the road into oncoming traffic. Walker reached for the mobile phone on his belt and, after a moment or two’s reflection in case he was over-reacting, dialled 999.

As the phone was ringing he turned to look at the oncoming traffic and saw the second car, exactly on cue, was a police car. There was a moment’s confusion as he flagged the police down with his folded Ordnance Survey map and informed the emergency services (who had answered the phone) that help had arrived and his call to them was therefore redundant. The two constables, a dour pair of youngsters who both seemed to be suffering from severe hangovers, after some initial suspicious hesitation (“Is this a madman? Is he dangerous and likely to pull a gun?” etc.) grasped the matter in hand, switched on their flashing blue light and surrounded the offending cavity with white and orange cones, one of which they later attached to a projection within the hole with a piece of blue string.

Situations like this seem to generate indecision and for a short while Walker was uncertain whether to go, or hang about as though he could possibly be of some use, or at least had an interest in the covering of the hole and ensuring it was no longer a danger. Since the two policemen showed no sign of wanting to engage in general conversation, Walker said “Well, I think I’ll continue with my Sunday constitutional” and proceeded along the grass verge to the traffic lights where he turned from the main road into the Coleford council estate.

More people were about here. A woman in a mauve jumper with a golden retriever on a lead walked across a wide and weedy open space, too big to be called a verge. Sunday morning men came from their front doors, talking to their companions of plans for the day, the people to be met and the cars to be sold. The road ran straight down the hill into Coleford and looked like a roll of white fly-paper covered in confetti. The houses and roadway itself provided the white but doors and windows, cars, gardens, washing, adults and children with their bikes and other toys created an untidy aniline kaleidoscope, a random architecture of folk, unplanned and unthought about, but with its own logic.

On arriving back in the centre of Coleford, Walker made his way to a supermarket, one of the cash-and-carry “we are cheaper than anyone else” variety. After a slalom of exploration up and down the tall rows of goods, Walker arrived at the cold drinks section which contained little but plastic, one and a half litre, screw-top containers of Sunny Delight. This drink, in its various manifestations, had become popular during the last several years because it was bright and well-marketed and had a taste of orange juice plus. It was much-condemned by the healthy eating lobby because it had no connection with oranges, or any other fruit, and was a remarkable cocktail of organic and inorganic chemicals. Vicki Thornton later told Walker that she thought it was made out of vegetable oil, but it was difficult to see how such a substance could be transmuted into a semblance of fruit juice – a genuine alchemy of the modern gastronomic world.

In the supermarket four varieties were offered: orange, tropical fruits and the low sugar version of each of these. Walker selected a low-sugar orange, partly because he had been reflecting during the morning’s perambulation that it was time he shed some weight.

Getting into the store had been easy: getting out was less so. The one proper till had just been occupied by a middle-aged man with a trolley piled high with loaves of bread and other staples, suggesting he must run either an hotel or an institution. Maybe he had slipped out for the week’s shopping while all his charges were at church. In the far corner there was a female shop assistant perched in front of a stacked army of cigarettes and beside a Lottery ticket dispenser. It was not clear whether she also dealt with trolleys and, in any case, was deep in what sounded like social chit chat with a shabby-looking middle-aged woman with greying hair, a brown, wrinkled face and glasses. Walker decided to get behind the man with the loaves, but immediately another customer with a small basket of groceries went over to the cigarette counter. Since the transactions of the loaf man looked likely to take some considerable time, or at least far longer than one would want to spend standing in a supermarket queue, Walker moved over to the cigarette counter.

It quickly became evident that the middle-aged lady was not only an acquaintance of the shop assistant, but a customer. In between the tortuous ramifications of the social life of Coleford on which she was expatiating, she was trying to work out how best her pursefull of coinage could be divided between Lottery tickets and cigarettes. The two women spread the money out on the counter and inspected it while discussing the most cost-effective strategy for procuring one of the white, black, gold, blue or otherwise-coloured packets that could satisfy the craving that had been worsening since the last nicotine-containing tube had burnt to its end the previous night. The available resources were small and eventually the Lottery ticket, with its promise of a £17 million win, had to be abandoned in favour of the cigarettes. Although this seemed to presage the end of the dialogue and offer the promise of more rapid movement of the queue, the shop assistant tackled her tasks of money counting, cigarette selecting and till ringing as though she had been trained to star in slow-motion films. This began to raise the irritating possibility that the person behind the man with the loaves who was occupying the place abandoned by Walker would get out of the store ahead.

However, this was not to be. Suddenly the middle-aged woman was off with the cigarettes and the man with the small basket had his newspaper and milk processed at half-speed, but without any other hitch, and Walker presented his pound coin for 99 pence-worth of Sunny Delight and exited into the sunlit Coleford with map in one hand and plastic flagon in the other.

He walked into the town centre and passed the clock tower with the cold plastic, now prickled with condensation, pressed against his arm and slowly ascended the winding hill where fading aubrietia still adorned some of the walls of Boxbush Road.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

How have I got into evolution anyway?

How have I got into evolution anyway?  It goes a long way back.  From early childhood I was deeply interested in wildlife and when I was 8 or 9, towards the end of World War II, my mother bought me a book called The Story of Living Things and their Evolution, written and illustrated by Eileen Mayo (1944) who was not a professional biologist.

I was enthralled by this book and, turning the pages today, I can remember the pleasure each picture and the accompanying text gave me.

The book was scientifically blessed with an introduction by Julian Huxley.  This contains some astonishing remarks.  For example, Huxley writes that Darwin and others "finally dethroned man from his claim to a unique position of Lord of Creation."  (I though that was God!).  Then Huxley rather contradicts himself in the next paragraph by saying that "as a result of studying evolution, we now know not merely that man has evolved from lower animals, but that he is now the sole trustee of life for further evolutionary progress in the future."  (So we still are Lord of Creation!).  In the case of the second observation, Homo sapiens does not seem to be making a very good job of it.

In the main body of the book I was very struck by the pages on the evolution of the horse which presented the reader with four animals increasing in size as the smallest, Eohippus,upgraded through Mesohippus and Merychippus to the modern horse.  Why did they get bigger I wonder.  Why don't we have mice the size of horses?  Is bigness an advantage in the case of equines but less so with rodents?

A glance at Wiki shows that illustration of the rise of the horse was, to say the least, a crude view.  But I'll bet our current view will seem crude in another 66 years time.

Mayo also says that Eohippus (now known as Hyracotherium) was the size of a fox, a remark congruent with Stephen Jay Gould's observation that the idea that this extinct creature was of fox, or fox terrier, size was apparently put about in a pamphlet by a celebrated foxhunting paleontologist called Henry Fairfield Osborn.  Maybe he thought all wild animals were fox sized.  Anyway Eohippus/Hyracotherium was, at 60 cm long, only about half the size of a fox (or fox terrier).

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My almost successful arrival

My almost successful arrival in the land of evolution makes me feel a bit like Uncle Toby on Tristram Shandy and his fascination with fortifications and their technicalities.

By following my nose on this I discovered that Michael Nyman, one of the modern composers I like most, had written something called The Nose-List Song as part of a Tristram Shandy opera (still under construction).  This shed no light on evolution, but was good to listen to.

Suzan Mazur talks with Vincent Fleury of the differences between French and American (Anglo-Saxon) thinking, particularly as it relates to evolution and morphogenesis/self-organisation.  But what is Chinese, or Indian, or Australian aboriginal thinking going to contribute towards the debate?  In the latter case both animate and inanimate objects are said to have been brought into being by song.  This somehow chimes with the Music of the Spheres, the Musica Universalis of celestial motions, an idea dating back at least to the time of Pythagoras,  Why did music evolve?  Why is it so central to the human project?

Friday, February 12, 2010

A papaya smoothie

There are many recipes for papaya smoothies on the Web, but most call for the seeds to be removed and discarded.  Papaya seeds are edible and add an interesting spicy flavour if used in the smoothie.

I made mine by putting the flesh and seeds of one papaya in the tumbler and topping up with white grape juice to the level of the fruit.  Vigorous blending crushed the seeds in this mixture and I passed the smoothie through a fine mesh sieve to get the black seed bits out.  It did not take long, or too much elbow grease to do this, but the result was excellent and unusual.