Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Excitability is a natural, physical property of nerve cells. In every neuron, the membrane potential undergoes ceaseless fluctuations in voltage. Those fluctuations are due in large part to the random release of vesicles of neurotransmitters at some of the neuron synapses. In the final analysis, this randomness arises fron thermal noise, whitch constantly rocks and rolls our mollecules around. One would think that evolution would minimize the impact of this noize, as engineers do in digital chips, when they set very distinct voltages for 0s and 1s that thermal noise cannot offset them. Not so in the brain: neurons not only tolerate noise but even amplify it – probably because some degree of randomness is helpful in many situations where we search for an optimal solution to a complex problem.

Whenever a neuron's membrane fluctuations exceed a threshold level, a spike is emitted. Our simulations show that these random spikes can be shaped by the vast sets of connections that link neurons into columns, assemblies, and circuits, until a global activity pattern emerges. What starts out as local noise ends up as a structured avalanche of spontaneous activity that corresponds to our covert thoughts and goals. It is humbling to think that the 'stream of consciousness,' the words and images that constantly pop up in our mind and make up the texture of our mental life, finds its ultimate origin in random spikes sculpted by the trillions of synapses laid down during our lifelong maturation and education."

from Consciousness and the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Geese with their exceptional eyesight and wide field of vision, combined with their strident voices, make excellent guards against approaching strangers or predators since outsiders cannot calm them into silence. This was shown in 390 BC, when Rome was attacked by Gallic troops. It was the alertness of the holy geese housed in the temple of the city's fort that allowed the defenders to wake in time to resist the attacking enemy. Today, in the high Andes, Southeast Asia and many other places, geese replace guard dogs. In Europe, they are used to guard whiskey warehouses and sensitive military installations."

Saturday, March 07, 2015

From the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the adjective "ebon":
Pretty humiliating for Elizabethan poet Giles Fletcher that this mistake is still in the dictionary 420 years later.

One of the only other uses of the phrase "ebon thighs" that I could find is in this collection of (vile but interesting) racist satirical poems about the alleged sexual relationship between President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings.

Friday, March 06, 2015

"Metallic siege money of Leyden [was] struck in 1574 from a round coin die onto a diamond shaped silver planchet. As the supply of silver available for coinage dried up during the siege, Leyden continued to mint coins made from paper torn from prayer books. These cardboard 'notes' became the first paper money to appear in the Western world. Prior to this only the Chinese used paper money."

from "Siege Notes" by John E. Sandrock

"The latest use of leather for regal currency in Europe appears to be that of Russia. From about the eighth century onwards, as the commerce of that country expanded, and the supply of hides for exchange or barter purposes failed to keep pace with the monetary requirements of the people, the use of whole skins was discontinued, and skin snouts, ears and claws were substituted. These, in turn, gave place to pieces of skin or leather, which at first were of irregular shape about an inch square in size, but were afterwards issued in a circular form, and impressed with the government stamp. They continued in use until the reform of the currency in the latter part of the reign of Peter the Great, who died in 1725."

from "Leather Currency" by William Charlton

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Glow has now been published in the US! "Virtuosic," says the LA Times.

Incidentally, those of you who've already read Glow may remember a mention of Linnaeus' horologium florae or flower clock. This weekend the New York Times' Michael Tortorello has published a wonderfully thorough article on that subject, in which I am briefly quoted.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

On the use of beheadings by the Zetas drug cartel in Mexico, from El Narco by Ioan Grillo:

"It is still unclear exactly what inspired such brutality. Many point to the influence of the Guatemalan Kaibiles working in the Zetas. In the Guatemalan civil war, troops cut off heads of captured rebels in front of villagers to terrify them from joining a leftist insurgency. Turning into mercenaries in Mexico, the Kaibiles might have reprised their trusted tactic to terrify enemies of the cartel. Other point to the influence of Al Qaeda decapitation videos from the Middle East, which were shown in full on some Mexican TV channels. Some anthropologists even point to the pre-Colombian use of beheadings and the way Mayans used them to show complete domination of their enemies."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

'During the 1930s, many articles appeared that claimed illustrators' – meaning conversational gestures – 'were inborn and that the "inferior races," such as the Jews or gypsies, made many large, sweeping illustrators compared to the "superior," less gesturally expansive Aryans. No mention was made of the grand illustrators shown by Germany's Italian ally! David Efron, an Argentinian Jew studying at Columbia University with the anthropologist Franz Boas, examined the illustrators of people living on the Lower East Side of New York City. He found that immigrants from Sicily used illustrators that draw a picture or show an action, while Jewish Lithuanian immigrants used illustrators that give emphasis or trace the flow of thought. Their offspring born in the United States who attended integrated schools did not differ from one another in the use of illustrators. Those of Sicilian parentage used illustrators similar to those used by children of Jewish Lithuanian parents. The style of illustrators is acquired, Efron showed, not inborn.'

from Telling Lies by Paul Ekman

Monday, December 29, 2014

Ten favourite films of 2014

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Blue Ruin
3. Snowpiercer
4. Listen Up Phillip
5. Only Lovers Left Alive
6. Nightcrawler
7. Edge of Tomorrow
8. Under the Skin
9. Gone Girl
10. The Guest

Monday, December 08, 2014

The first recorded polygraph test in history

Above: Erasistratus the Physician Discovers the Love of Antiochus for Stratonice by Benjamin West (1772)

"By the time of Erasistratus, the celebrated Greek physician and anatomist (300-250 B.C.), we find very definite attempts to detect deceit and these, interestingly enough, appear relatively objective in method (i.e., feeling the pulse). One such attempt is related by Plutarch and others. It concerned the love of Antiochus for his step-mother, Stratonice, and his efforts to conceal it from his father, Seleucus I of Syria, surnamed Nicator.

"Nicator, formerly a general in the conquering army of Alexander the Great, had married the beautiful Stratonice. Sometime after this marriage, Nicator's son (of a former wife), Antiochus, began to lose weight and to languish in an unknown disease. Nicator, whose associations with Alexander the Great had made him familiar with Alexander's respect for learning, decided to patronize learning himself and to look about for a capable physician who could cure his son's ailment. He called to his court Erasistratus, who had gained renown for his discussions of the functions of the brain and nervous system.

"When Erasistratus arrived at the court he acted on the current suspicion that Antiochus may have developed a consuming passion for the beautiful woman his father had married. In discussing with Antiochus the virtues of Stratonice he found occasion to feel Antiochus' pulse, and its tumultuous rhythm made him sure of his suspicions. Consequently Erasistratus informed the monarch that Antiochus was infatuated by Stratonice. Indeed, significant circumstantial evidence was to support this diagnosis: the second Stratonice was begotten of the intimacies of Antiochus and the Queen."

from "A History of Lie Detection" by Paul V Trovillo

But when Father Brown is told about a "pulsometer" in G.K. Chesterton's story "The Mistake of the Machine" (1914):

"'What sentimentalists men of science are!' exclaimed Father Brown, 'and how much more sentimental must American men of science be! Who but a Yankee would think of proving anything from heart-throbs? Why, they must be as sentimental as a man who thinks a woman is in love with him if she blushes. That's a test from the circulation of the blood, discovered by the immortal [William] Harvey; and a jolly rotten test, too.'"

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

From my favourite book about art, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin by Lawrence Weschler:

Bob had been headed south from Paris toward Morocco, when, passing through Barcelona, he first heard about Ibiza, a small island off the Spanish Mediterranean coast. He continued to North Africa, but several weeks later, for no particular reason — it was cheap, it was warm, it was said to be peaceful — he ventured out to the dry, barren island. In subsequent years Ibiza (pronounced “E-be-tha” by native Castilians) became known as something of an artist’s colony, a winter resort, but during the season Irwin spent there, it was still utterly remote. On the edge of a barren peninsula, Irwin installed himself one day in a small rented cabin and then did not converse with a soul for the next eight months.

Today, when he talks about it, he can’t explain why it happened. It just did, gradually, this distancing of himself from the world: the night walks in Paris, the North African desert, and then, by an ineluctable process, this season on Ibiza.

He does recall how it felt: “It was a tremendously painful thing to do, especially in the beginning. It’s like in the everyday world, you’re just plugged into all the possibilities. Every time you get bored, you plug yourself in somewhere: you call somebody up, you pick up a magazine, a book, you go to a movie, anything. And all of that becomes your identity, the way in which you’re alive. You identify yourself in terms of all that. Well, what was happening to me as I was on my way to Ibiza was that I was pulling all those plugs out, one at a time: books, language, social contacts. And what happens at a certain point as you get down to the last plugs, it’s like the Zen thing of having no ego: it becomes scary, it’s like maybe you’re going to lose yourself. And boredom then becomes extremely painful. You really are bored and alone and vulnerable in the sense of having no outside supports in terms of your own being. But when you get them all pulled out, a little period goes by, and then it’s absolutely serene, it’s terrific. It just becomes really pleasant because you’re out, you’re all the way out."

He had brought along a pad and some drawing supplies, but he did not use them. Instead he just sat on a rock, isolated. "I mean, there were people," he clarifies, "but they were simply not people. They were just part of the landscape. These people were from another world, another time, fishermen in broken-down barks, farmers scraping the scrabbly ground. We had nothing in common, certainly not language – there was no contact. There was this outcropping, and then the Mediterranean carving up the pumice below, and inland some forests, fir trees. You ate whatever the fisherman took in that day. Time became kind of unreal."

He thought about less and less. Finally he just thought about thinking. No longer calibrating his thoughts in terms of a social reality, in terms of how he would have to square them with the realities of the world, he almost stopped thinking in terms of language. There was a slow purification of thinking; he speaks of arriving at pure ideas, stripped of any worldly ambitions or motives.

"Ideas, when they get like that," Irwin explains, "then you can really get into the game of reason. You can really sit down and reason the nature of what you are thinking. When you peel all those layers away and you arrive at just the qualities of the ideas themselves, it becomes very clear and very simple as to what they are what they are and do what they do. Then, later, when you bring back in the motives and the aspirations and the rationales, you can begin to see how they in turn alter the ideas."

He stayed through the winter, an unseasonably cold winter endured without hot water or heating. The months passed. Spring arrived. One evening, walking into the nearby village, he saw a poster for Singin’ in the Rain — in Technicolor with Gene Kelly. The screening was due to begin in just a few minutes in the town’s tiny, creaky, old theater. He walked in, was suffused for an hour and a half with the sound sets and palm trees of Southern California. “That broke the spell!” He left, walked back to his stucco cabin, packed his gear, and was gone the next morning. A week later he was back in Los Angeles.

Monday, December 01, 2014


I am not the world's most empathetic person. On the empathy scale I'd put myself about level with Ultron. Sometimes I think there may only be one situation in life where I am really capable of feeling pain on behalf of another human being. And that's when a friend of mine goes to New York for a week and they don't eat very well. That is a tragedy that can haunt my conscience for months afterwards.

It's especially poignant to me because it's so easily averted. No tourist in New York need ever eat badly. (Money no object! On a budget of $20 a day you can eat the best food of your life if you tramp the 7 line in Queens.)

With that in mind, I feel it may be time to present my findings from the many long visits to New York I've made over the past few years. Here is the Google Map I've made.

The trouble is, I have a real collector's mentality about restaurants, meaning I tend to visit each place only once, and the next time I want to try somewhere new. However, for me, recommending a restaurant based on one visit is horribly unscientific and irresponsible, because my enjoyment of any given meal has so much to do with who I'm with, who's paying, how much I've had to drink etc. (Footnote: perhaps those factors don't affect professional restaurant reviewers. But I do believe that you simply don't know very much about a restaurant and its food if you've only eaten there once. That's why I find it hard to take seriously any inspection less rigorous than the New York Times' critics', because they eat a long series of meals, or even, in one famous case, two meals simultaneously.)

So in the following recommendations I'm giving priority to businesses I've patronised two or more times.

Here are my seven favourite bars in New York. (Yes, I'm doing bars as well.)

Booker & Dax (East Village – cocktails: modernist)
Amor y Amargo (East Village – cocktails: aged spirits and bitters)
Henry Public (Cobble Hill – cocktails: general sense of limitless wellbeing)
Torst (Greenpoint – craft beer)
Gowanus Yacht Club (Carroll Gardens – beer in the sunshine)
Decibel (East Village – sake)
Lucky Dog (Williamsburg – dive)

Here are some more bars that I've found to be reliable fall-backs in their respective neighbourhoods, listed roughly in order of how close they got to making it on to the previous list:

Doris (Bed Stuy), 4th Avenue Pub (Park Slope), The Library (Lower East Side), The Brooklyn Inn (Boerum Hill), Sel Rrose (Nolita), Home Sweet Home (Chinatown), Sunny's (Red Hook), Ontario Bar (East Williamsburg), Brooklyn Social (Carroll Gardens), Sophie's (East Village), Spuyten Duvil (central Williamsburg), Congress (Cobble Hill), Crown Victoria (west Williamsburg: summer), Black Bear (west Williamsburg: winter), Vol de Nuit (West Village), Pencil Factory (Greenpoint), Fulton Grand (Clinton Hill), The Breslin (Flatiron)

And here is a short list of bars that I've only been to once but that made such a pleasant impression on me that I'm willing to recommend them all the same:

Kirakuya (Koreatown), Beverly's (Chinatown), 124 Old Rabbit Club (West Village), Proletariat (East Village), OTB (south Williamsburg), Hank's Saloon (Boerum Hill), Bossa Nova Civic Club (Bushwick), Bearded Lady (Prospect Heights), Bait & Tackle (Red Hook), Nights and Weekends (Greenpoint), Forgetmenot (Chinatown)

On to food. If you said to me, 'Ned, I'm spending a week in New York, please tell me where I should eat in order to experience the best of what the city has to offer (limiting your recommendations, of course, to restaurants you've visited at least twice, because this isn't some sort of happy-go-lucky free-for-all)' I would supply the following list, which has a strong bias towards Asian food, because that's what I'm into:

Xi'an Famous Foods (Shaanxi Chinese, various locations), Momofuku Noodle Bar (Asian, East Village), Momofuku Sssam Bar (Asian, East Village), Mission Chinese Food (Chinese, Lower East Side), Roberta's (Italian, Bushwick), Spotted Pig (British, West Village), Pok Pok Ny (Thai, Red Hook), Somtum Der (northern Thai, East Village), Hot Kitchen (Sichuan Chinese, East Village), Keste (Neapolitan pizza, West Village), Ivan Ramen (ramen, multiple locations), Chengdu Heaven (Sichuan Chinese, Flushing), Taste of Northern China (Henan Chinese), Ali's Trinidad Roti Shop (roti, Bed Stuy), Rockaway Taco (tacos, Rockaway), Shake Shack (burgers, multiple locations), Oddfellows (ice cream, multiple locations), Num Pang (Cambodian sandwiches, multiple locations), Hanco's (Vietnamese sandwiches, multiple locations), Meat Hook Sandwich Shop (sandwiches, East Williamsburg), Saltie (sandwiches, central Williamsburg), Dough (doughnuts, multiple locations), Biryani Cart (kati rolls, Midtown), various BBQ carts in downtown Flushing (Xinjiang Chinese, Flushing), various taco trucks in Jackson Heights (tacos, Jackson Heights)

And if you said to me, 'Ned, I'll permit you to trample over every empirical principle you hold dear and name some restaurants that you've only visited on a single occasion but nonetheless feel prepared to endorse on that basis as among the finest of their kind' this is what you would get:

The Dutch (American, SoHo), Mighty Quinn's (Southern BBQ, multiple locations), Biang! (Shaanxi Chinese, Flushing), La Vara (tapas, Cobble Hill), Tortilleria Nixtamal (tacos, Corona), Danji (Korean, Hell's Kitchen), Ayada (Thai, Elmhurst), Khao Kang (Thai, Elmhurst), Kitchen 79 (Thai, Jackson Heights), Arepa Lady (arepas, Jackson Heights), Prime Meats (American, Carroll Gardens), Malai Marke (Indian, East Village), Ganesh Temple Canteen (dosas, Murray Hill)

Of all the restaurants that I have emblazoned with the royal seal here, the only ones that I'd characterise as expensive are The Dutch, La Vara, Prime Meats and Momofuku Ssam Bar. The rest are cheap (although if you are really determined to throw your money around, a few will permit that in fine fashion). Anyway, everything's on the Google Map. If you use it, please email me and tell me what you thought.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

I spent most of October working on two long profiles, both of which have come out this weekend. First I went to Berlin to interview Olafur Eliasson for the New York Times' T magazine. Then I went to Vancouver to interview William Gibson for The Observer.

And for completeness' sake, while I'm here promoting my journalism, it occurs to me that I never put a link on this blog to my essay for Aeon about Donald Judd.

Here is a section that I very regretfully had to cut from the William Gibson piece for reasons of space:

Gibson has described the internet as a component of our 'global, communal prosthetic memory'. In that spirit, I didn't bother to ask him very much about his personal history, because he detailed it so comprehensively in a 2011 Paris Review interview which is available for free online. All the same, he did tell me one fascinating story about his past that I'd never come across in the dozens of interviews with him that I'd read (although I've subsequently discovered from Google, our most dependable prosthesis, that he has mentioned it in the course of at least one public event).

First, some background. One of the most rewarding qualities of Gibson's work is the thoroughness and precision with which he describes inanimate objects. You might think of Gibson as the poet of the virtual, but really he's always been much more about the actual. If fiction strives, as James Wood puts it, 'to open the pores of our senses and feel the world', I'll take Gibson over nearly any author of so-called 'realist' literature. We live among objects, and it's still through objects that the future creeps up: today a cheap smartphone or a polyethylene running shoe, tomorrow a vat-grown hamburger or a 3D-printed sniper rifle. If a writer reserves his or her best prose for faces and landscapes and weather and other pretty things that have always looked the same, he or she is giving only the vaguest account of real life, compared to the exceptional tangibility of Gibson's work.

'When I started,' Gibson told me, 'I had a list of what I regarded as deficiencies in genre science fiction. There was a story I read – I have no idea who wrote it – where the character looks out of the porthole of a spaceship and sees a prone figure wearing “silver boots”. And those “silver boots” made me so mad. Were they tarnished sterling? Were they Vegas lamé? Just the laziness of it. I thought, “This is one of the reasons the other writers don't take us seriously.” If it was worth doing this ridiculous thing of imagining what the future might be like, it was worth doing it less fuzzily.' (At this point I must apologise for referring inadequately to my 'dictaphone' in an earlier paragraph. It was in fact a Chinese-made Olympus WS-110 digital voice recorder dating from the first generation iPod era when plastic in a hospital shade of white was briefly a signifier of advanced technology.) 'Something else that fed into it,' Gibson went on, 'was a kind of political awareness that everything in the human universe was made by a person, or by a machine that had been made by people. And there also may be, I sometimes suspect, a kind of borderline autistic fascination with objects. Not everyone shares it, but there's much more of it evident now on the internet than was previously evident in the world, so I feel less odd about having it.'

Tracing this tendency back, he told an innocuous story which practically made my jaw fall off when I heard it because it seemed to explain so much about the work of one of my favourite living writers. 'The only writing teacher I ever had was in a high school composition class and he was someone he wrote contract specifications for the US military. He talked a lot about his job, and about how if he didin't describe the thing exactly, and then it arrived and it went wrong, the Pentagon was stuck paying for it. He would have us do exercises describing a wooden pencil to that standard.'

Ernest Hemingway spoke fondly of his time as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star, where the official style guide instructed him to 'use short sentences. Use vigorous English. Eliminate every superfluous word.' To me, Gibson's story about the high school teacher is equally revelatory. Of course, it's not the whole picture: Gibson would not have found that class so stimulating if he had not had a preexisting interest in squinting at objects through the loup of prose, just as Hemingway would not have gone for that newspaper job if he had not had a preexisting interest in getting manly deeds down on paper with a minimum of fuss.

Nevertheless, to use a Gibson phrase, it's a 'nodal point' in his biography – not only because of the writing exercise itself, but also because the teacher was working for the Pentagon. One of the constants of his work is that we live in a sort of military surplus society, where military technologies, methodologies and philosophies are forever leaking into civilian life.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"And then the bastards chose to fire off three more flares followed by a stream of miscellaneous rockets that burst prettily among the stars. Of course! Bright idea! This was for the sake of watchers in the valley who might be inquisitive about the mysterious explosions high up the mountain. They were having a party up there, celebrating something. What fun these rich folk had, to be sure! And then Bond remembered. But of course! It was Christmas Eve! God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay! Bond's skis hissed an accompaniment as he zigzagged fast down the beautiful snow slope. White Christmas! Well, he'd certainly got himself that! But then, from high up above him, he heard that most dreaded of all sounds in the high Alps, that rending, booming crack! The Last Trump! Avalanche!"

from On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming (1963)

"I've got a very good publisher's reader, William Plomer, who's a great poet and an extremely nice man, and he said some time ago that I never put in any exclamation marks. This stuck in my mind, and so in my last book I put in exclamation marks like pepper. And my publishers stupidly enough left them in. Then I get a fierce review from The New York Times saying not only is Ian Fleming a very inferior writer but he has the girlish trick of putting in exclamation marks all over the place."

Ian Fleming in conversation with George Simenon (1964)

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

I have just finished Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity by Thomas Metzinger. It took me ten months, on and off, so finishing it feels like a Life Event. The book is 635 pages long and extremely technical; it's a difficult read, in other words, but I found it exhilaratingly difficult. And my picture of the human condition has been permanently changed, which is all you can really ask of a book. This change only amounts to a bunch of tweaks and polishes, admittedly, because I was already pretty sympathetic to the worldview expressed here, but they're tweaks and polishes at the deepest metaphysical levels. For those without any philosophical training, Metzinger has published a shorter, more accessible version called The Ego Tunnel. I haven't read that, so I can't authoritatively recommend it, but what I can recommend without reservation is Peter Watts' terrific SF novel Blindsight. That book is in some respects an 'adaptation' of Metzinger's theories, and I bought Being No One after finding it discussed in Blindsight's appendix, which is an agreeable route by which to arrive at a philosophy book.

I don't know that I have the mental resources at the moment to write anything substantive about Being No One, so I'll just finish with a short passage chosen almost at random from the many I highlighted. Consciousness is sometimes regarded as a sort of gift from God that allows human beings to appreciate the external world in all its plenitude; Joyce and Proust came to mind when I encountered this idea that consciousness is, on the contrary, a way of narrowing the external world to a manageable and unambiguous sliver.

"One main function of conscious experience may be to construct a final phase in a process of reducing information, data, and uncertainty originating in the buzzing, blooming confusion of the external world. As recent research into bistable phenomena (e.g., see Leopold and Logothetis 1999) has vividly demonstrated, if two incompatible interpretations of a situation are given through the sensory modules, then only one at a time can be consciously experienced. The generation of a single and coherent world-model, therefore, is a strategy to achieve a reduction of ambiguity. At the same time, this leads to a reduction of data: the amount of information directly available to the system, for example, for selection of motor processes or the deliberate guiding of attention, is being minimized and thereby, for all mechanisms operating on the phenomenal world-model, the computational load is reduced."