Sunday, July 24, 2016

A farcical incident deep in the Honduran rainforest, from Peter Keenagh's travelogue The Mosquito Coast (1938):

Trapp had brought two large canoes full of fresh supplies for us – food and ammunition – with three Zambu boys from Brewer's Lagoon, who had since gone back in one canoe leaving tie other for him. He took us proudly to the hut and showed us the pile of things he had brought. There was flour and rice, sugar, salt and coffee; tinned milk and even butter, and a lot of quinine. In a separate pile, in neat packages, was the ammunition. He probably had great trouble in protecting it lower down the river, for the Honduran Government is very strict about importing ammunition into Mosquitia. For the people who live there it is hard to get and expensive, and here we had a supply probably amounting to more than all the rest of the ammunition in the territory. It had been sent by air from the capital to La Ceiba, from there to the Lagoon by schooner, and now it had been laboriously brought up the Patuca by Robert Trapp. I picked up a large square package that was covered with oilskin wrapping. It was so heavy that I thought it must be .38 revolver ammunition. Nigel had two cartridges left in his belt and I had only one, so I tore away the wrapping to get out a fresh supply before we forgot. The oilskin came away easily, then there was a layer of heavy cartridge paper and wire, and finally two thicknesses of brown paper done up with stout cord. At last the covering was off.

I could not believe my eyes; instead of neat boxes there were books, a large pile of enormous fat volumes. Incredulously I picked them up. Salmond on the Law of Torts by W. T. S. Stallybrass; The Institutes of Justinian; Cheshire's Modern Real Property ; and so on. We looked at each other without a word. There was no adequate remark to make. Instead of valuable ammunition we had been sent law books, as unsuitable a form of literature for the banks of the Patuca river as one can well imagine. Frantically we searched the rest of the cases. There were plenty of shot-gun shells, a box (for some reason) of signal rockets, and finally, at the very bottom, a small box of .38 bullets. It was a relief to find them, but there were very few, and we were disappointed that the first case had not been full of them.

In fury we turned to the books. There was no sense in keeping them, a useless dead weight, if we were going across country to the Guarunta. Disgustedly we hurled them into the river. They floated clumsily down stream, and before they were far from us we saw a ripple on the water and an alligator'ss jaws snapping at the Law of Torts. He must have been as disappointed as we were. As Justinian floated away Nigel in a fit of spite put a bullet through it. Cheshire ran aground on some rocks, where it remained in safety to mock us for several days. The others were whirled away by the current, to find their way into the Lagoons or possibly out to sea. They must have proved a source of enormous enlightenment to the Zambus. Robert Trapp watched us with delight, pleased at the sight of people who apparently shared his own opinion of books.

It took us a long time to find out how those books had reached us. At the end of the summer term in Oxford I had ordered them from Blackwell's ; they had followed me to Tegucigalpa, where someone had put them on an aeroplane going to La Ceiba ; and from there they had made their dogged legal way into the middle of Mosquitia by schooner and canoe. There is no getting away from the law.

Monday, July 18, 2016

“I think it cannot be denied that the tendency of the Eton system is to make a boy generous and firm-minded, to exercise his common sense early, to make him habitually feel a moral responsibility, to act not under the impulse of fear, but of generous shame and generous emulation, to be willing and determined to keep trust because he is trusted; – in a word, to make him a manly boy and a gentleman.” – John Taylor Coleridge, 1861

Thursday, July 07, 2016

An interesting etymology I found today: to say that something had been "spirited away" didn't originally mean, as you might assume, that something had been whisked away as if by magical spirits. In fact, "spirits" was a slang term for kidnappers who took poor children from the streets of London and shipped them off to work on plantations in the West Indies. The outcry against this led Parliament in 1645 to pass an ordnance against kidnapping children, although the earliest relevant citations in the OED are from decades later:

1666   London Gaz. No. 107/1   Several persons escaped from the Vessel, who pretend they were spirited (as they term it) and invited upon several pretences aboard them, and then..carried away.
a1675   B. Whitelocke Memorials Eng. Affairs (1682) anno 1645 140/1   An Ordinance agains such who are called Spirits, and use to steal away, and take up children.

Finally, in the nineteenth century, the connotation of the phrase began to converge with the non-slang meaning of the word:

c. Said of the action of spirits.

1825   J. Neal Brother Jonathan I. 253   Peters had been..spirited away in a thunderstorm.
1855   W. Irving Chron. Wolfert's Roost 179   Others jocosely hinted that old Pluto..had spirited away the boy to the nether regions.
1889   J. M. Barrie Window in Thrums 102   It was thocht next mornin' 'at the ghost had spirited them awa.

That first citation is a bit ambiguous but fortunately the context can be confirmed on Google Books. "Nay; it soon came to be whispered about, confidentially, in the great chimney corners; among the very old, and very young people, that Peters had been carried off, in a whirlwind; cottage and all; spirited away, in a thunderstorm, such as never was heard of, before – by his Master – the Evil One; or Old One."

I looked up John Neal, the author of Brother Jonathan, on Wikipedia, and found that he sometimes took only a week to write a novel. This productivity earned him the nickname Jehu O'Cataract. "I shall write, as others drink, for exhilaration," he once declared. After three years in London (lodging part of the time with Jeremy Bentham), he returned to his birthplace of Portland, Maine to visit his mother. He hadn't planned to move back there for good, but the local reaction to his writing had been so bad that he was told he wouldn't be allowed to stay even if he wanted to – which made him decide he did want to, and indeed he did stay, for the rest of his life. "He maintained a solid physique into old age, which he demonstrated when he threw a stubborn cigar-smoker off a non-smoking street car at the age of 79." Edgar Allen Poe called him "among our men of indisputable genius" but none of his books are now in print.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

My story "It Takes More Muscles to Frown", originally from the MIT Technology Review's special issue Twelve Tomorrows, has been included in an anthology published this week as The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection in the US and The Mammoth Book of Best New SF: 29 in the UK. This is a series I read for years before I became a writer so it's exciting to be part of it.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

"You had to distinguish between the two walls pressing in on the human being. Man succeeds in getting over the first rampart every time he does something kind and unselfish, but that is only the lesser rampart. The greater wall equals the selfhood of even the most unselfish person; this is the original sin as such; with us, every sensation, every feeling, even that of self-surrender, is more a taking than a giving, and there is hardly any way of shaking off this armour of all-permeating selfishness. Hans ticked off specifics: Knowledge is simply the appropriation of something not our own. We kill, tear, and digest our 'object' as an animal does its prey. A concept is a living thought killed, never to stir again. A conviction is an impulse of faith, frozen into some unchanging lifeless form. Research confirms the known. Character is inertia, the refusal to keep growing. To know a person amounts to no longer being moved by that person. Insight is one-way vision. Truth is the successful effort to think impersonally and inhumanly. Everywhere, the instinct to kill, to freeze, to clutch, to petrify, is a mixture of self-seeking with a cold, craven, treacherous mock-selflessness."

from The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Fungus globalisation

Fungi comprise most of the viable biomass in the air, with an average human breath containing between one and ten fungal spores. This ability of fungi to disperse results in some species with cosmopolitan distributions. However, these species are in the minority and it is noticeable that few fungi exhibit truly globally distributions; instead they exhibit spatially restricted endemic ranges. In many cases, local adaptation and host specificity are thought to underlie fungal endemicity. Nevertheless, when local climatic and vegetative constraints are projected globally it becomes clear that potential ranges of pathogenic fungi may be much larger than their realized range. If fungi are contained spatially by the combination of physical limits on dispersal, abiotic conditions, host distributions and genetic limits on adaptation, then how are pathogenic fungi able to overcome these barriers? Although fungi have shown the ability to undergo range expansions in response to environmental shifts, human-mediated intercontinental dispersal of unrecognized fungal pathogens is the major component in initiating new chains of transmission.

Pathogenic fungi have dispersed alongside early human migrations, and several thousand years ago two of these fungi, Coccidioides immitis and C. neoformans lineage VNI, seem to have invaded South America and southeast Asia, respectively, vectored by humans and their domesticated animals. Similar ancient patterns of human-associated disease spread are detected by studies of the genome diversity of many plant fungal pathogens. However, more recent increases in fungal disease are attributable to the many-fold increase in fungal-infected trade products and food. The consequences of recent introductions of pathogens in association with trade are well known; examples include the Irish Famine (a consequence of Phytophthora infestans late blight introduction from South America), the destruction of the North American chestnuts (caused by the importation of Cryphonectria parasitica-infected Asian chestnut trees to the east coast of the United States in the early twentieth century) and the Second World War introduction of Heterobasidion annosum into Italy from the USA (vectored by untreated wooden transport crates). Human-mediated intercontinental trade has also been linked clearly to the spread of animal-pathogenic fungi through the transportation of infected vector species. B. dendrobatidis has been introduced repeatedly to naive populations worldwide as a consequence of the trade in the infected, yet disease-tolerant species such as North American bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana) and African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis). Whether the emergence of bat WNS constitutes an introduction of G. destructans into North America from Europe or elsewhere remains to be shown. However, the widespread but apparently non-pathogenic nature of the infection in European bats tentatively suggests that the disease may have been vectored from this region in contaminated soil.

from "Emerging fungal threats to animal, plant and ecosystem health" by Matthew C. Fisher , Daniel. A. Henk, Cheryl J. Briggs, John S. Brownstein, Lawrence C. Madoff, Sarah L. McCraw & Sarah J. Gurr

Thursday, April 07, 2016


I made a Spotify playlist about Isaac and Abraham.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

NOTE: For a couple reasons this screenplay does not adhere to the one-page/ minute convention. 1. Although most scenes are incredibly brief, there are more than twice as many of them here than an average script resulting in more description and scene headings. 2. Many objects in this story don't have a real-world analogue, again resulting in more description.

The first act, involving the adults in the early 1980s, is paced somewhere between a traditional narrative and the "previously on" section of a TV show (assume there is a "CUT TO" between every action). It will run at about 30 seconds a page, taking 30 minutes of screen time. The kids' story runs at 40 seconds a page for another 2 hours of screen time.

from the opening of Shane Carruth's screenplay for A Topiary

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Island foxes on Santa Cruz Island, California USA experienced precipitous declines in the mid-1990s owing to heightened predation by colonizing golden eagle. Although golden eagles were the proximate cause of the decline, feral pigs, by acting as an abundant food lured golden eagles to the island and through the process of apparent competition indirectly caused the decline in foxes. Thus, removing both eagles and pigs were necessary management actions required to save the island fox. The question at the time was: Which one do you remove first?"

from "Does the Order of Invasive Species Removal Matter? The Case of the Eagle and the Pig"

"The Western origin of the wolf, goat, and cabbage puzzle is most often attributed to a set of 53 problems designed to challenge youthful minds, 'Propositiones and acuendos iuvenes.' Although circulated around the year 1000, Alcuin of York (735-804) is said to have authored these as he referred to them in a letter to his most famous student, Charlemagne. The solution given by these works is to carry over the goat, then transport the wolf and return with the goat, then carry over the cabbage, then carry over the goat. A second solution, which simply interchanges the wolf and cabbage, is often attributed to the French mathematician Chuquet in 1484 but is found even earlier in the twelfth century in Germany in the succinct form of Latin hexameter...

Other related but different problems occur in three regions in Africa. They are similar in that they require a human to transport across a river a predator, its prey, and some food. However, closer examination shows that they have a distinctly different logical structure. Now A, B, and C must be transported across a river by a human who can only transport two of A, B,C at one time. Neither A nor C can be left alone with B on either shore...

Still one more African version of the problem is found only among the Ila (Zambia). The striking difference is that it involves four items to be transported: a leopard, a goat, a rat, and a basket of corn. The boat can hold just the man and one of these. This problem exemplifies the interrelationship of culture and logical constraints. After considering leaving behind the rat or leopard (and thus reducing the problem to one that can be solved logically), the man's decision is that since both animals are to him as children, he will forego the river crossing and remain where he is!...

The differences in logical structure suggest that the Western and African versions of the problem were independently conceived. Similarity of puzzle goal is not sufficient to imply historical connection. Although the situation depicted seems fanciful if viewed from a twentieth-century, industrial urban setting, the need to get unmanageable items across some water is not uncommon today in other settings and surely was not uncommon during the last thousand years."

Sunday, March 27, 2016

I wrote a column for the recently-relaunched Frieze website about paracetamol and meaning threats.

Currently I am a fellow at the The Santa Maddalena Foundation for Writers and Botanists in Tuscany, working on my fourth novel.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"A member of a given society not only codifies reality through the use of specific language and other patterned behavior characteristic of his culture, but he actually grasps reality only as it is presented to him in this code." – Dorothy Lee

"Historical novelists are generally in the business of soothing their readers with continuities rather than admitting the psychological inaccessibility of the past." - Adam Mars-Jones

Friday, January 15, 2016

Some appearances (UPDATED)

February 1st: Faber Social at The Social, London
February 19th-21st: Lahore Literary Festival at the Alhamra Arts Centre, Lahore
February 27th: LSE Literary Festival at the Sheikh Zayed Theatre, London
March 2nd: reading at the Çağdaş Sanatlar Merkezi, Ankara
March 3rd: reading at the Pera Museum, Istanbul
March 8th: Canterbury University reading series at the Sidney Cooper Gallery, Canterbury
April 15th: Remarks on Unremarkable Films of the 90s at Vout-O-Reenee's, London
May 8th: Words in the Square in St. James' Square, London
May 12th: reading at Galerie Éof, Paris
July 15th: Sceptre 30th Anniversary salon at Foyles, London

Sunday, January 10, 2016

I found this 1993 linguistics paper interesting because there's something quite Borgesian about its central endeavour: to teach an "impossible" imaginary language to an autistic savant polyglot.

The languages chosen were Berber, an Afro-Asiatic language spoken in North Africa, and Epun, an invented language deliberately devised to contain constructions which violated universal grammatical principles...

Christopher, who, despite being institutionalised because he is unable to look after himself, has a remarkable talent for learning and translating languages... 

We predicted that Christopher should find it impossible or extremely difficult to master those parts of Epun which, ex hypothesi, contravened universal generalizations and were not describable in terms of parametric variation. If his status as a polyglot savant is accurately characterised - to a first approximation - in terms of his having an intact, or enhanced, language module in association with some impairment of his central, cognitive faculties (cf. Fodor 1983), it should follow that humanly possible (sets of) constructions provide no insuperable difficulties, whereas linguistically impossible constructions or combinations of properties, even if conceptually simple and transparent, should occasion him severe problems. However, it is plausible to assume that even the linguistically impossible could be learned via inductive reasoning - a 'central' process - provided only that his central system is not too impaired to cope. In such a situation the order in which he mastered different 'impossible' rules should be a joint function of their inherent complexity and their superficial similarity to constructions in languages that Christopher already knows...

The specific [impossible] additions [to Epun] were:

- Negative sentences, characterised by the Verb preceding the Subject, but with no negative morpheme.
- Transitive sentences in all three tenses. The past tense is characterised by the Object being moved to initial position, as well as by an overt prefix.

That is we now have the word-order patterns:

S V (O) Positive (Present and Future)
V S (O) Negative (Present and Future)
(O) S V Positive (Past)
(O) V S Negative (Past)

from "Learning the impossible: The acquisition of possible and impossible languages by a polyglot savant" by Neil V. Smith, lanthi-Maria Tsimpli, and Jamal Ouhalla

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Favourite films of 2015
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. It Follows
3. Tangerine
4. The Lobster
5. Mistress America
6. Bridge of Spies
7. Timbuktu
8. Carol
9. The Duke of Burgundy
10. Inherent Vice

Favourite non-2015 films I saw for the first time in 2015
1. Army of Shadows (1969)
2. The Cranes Are Flying (1957)
3. The Thin Man (1934)
4. Trouble in Paradise (1932)
5. Vivacious Lady (1938)
6. The Killers (1946)
7. The Devils (1971)
8. Come and See (1985)
9. Woman in the Dunes (1964)
10. All That Jazz (1979)
11. Soy Cuba (1964)
12. Safe (1995)
13. House (1977)
14. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
15. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
16. Out of the Past (1947)
17. King of Kong (2007)
18. Nights of Cabiria (1957)
19. Hara Kiri (1962)
20. Stage Door (1937)

Favourite meals of 2015 (one entry per country)
1. Machneyuda (modern Israeli in Jerusalem)
2. L'Auberge du Col du Truges (traditional French in Villié-Morgon)
3. Oldroyd (modern British in London)
4. Zuari (Goan in Lisbon)
5. Tacos el Volcan (tacos in Pátzcuaro)
6. Chez Kebe (Senegalese in Tangier)

Favourite books (by people I haven't met) I read for the first time in 2015
1. The Conspiracy Against The Human Race by Thomas Ligotti (2010)
2. Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom (2014)
3. Ashenden by Somerset Maugham (1928)
4. The Miernik Dossier by Charles McCarry (1973)
5. Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George (2013)