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)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

If you're in West Texas, you can listen to a new short story of mine on Marfa Public Radio this week. All the details here.

Monday, November 23, 2015

My story "Five Parties" is up on the Granta website. (Photo above by Martin d'Orgeval.)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

One striking characteristic of Grothendieck’s mode of thinking is that it seemed to rely so little on examples. This can be seen in the legend of the so-called “Grothendieck prime”. In a mathematical conversation, someone suggested to Grothendieck that they should consider a particular prime number. “You mean an actual number?” Grothendieck asked. The other person replied, yes, an actual prime number. Grothendieck suggested, “All right, take 57.”

But Grothendieck must have known that 57 is not prime, right? Absolutely not, said David Mumford of Brown University. “He doesn’t think concretely.” Consider by contrast the Indian mathematician Ramanujan, who was intimately familiar with properties of many numbers, some of them huge. That way of thinking represents a world antipodal to that of Grothendieck. “He really never worked on examples,” Mumford observed. “I only understand things through examples and then gradually make them more abstract. I don’t think it helped Grothendieck in the least to look at an example. He really got control of the situation by thinking of it in absolutely the most abstract possible way. It’s just very strange. That’s the way his mind worked.” Norbert A’Campo of the University of Basel once asked Grothendieck about something related to the Platonic solids. Grothendieck advised caution. The Platonic solids are so beautiful and so exceptional, he said, that one cannot assume such exceptional beauty will hold in more general situations.

from "As If Summoned from the Void: The Life of Alexandre Grothendieck" by Allyn Jackson

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A short story I wrote to accompany Matthew Darbyshire's retrospective at the Manchester Art Gallery is now available online as both text and audio. It may not make much sense out of context!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

This year's instalment of Twelve Tomorrows, the MIT Technology Review's annual science fiction anthology, includes "It Takes More Muscles to Frown", my cyberpunk story set in the oil industry in near-future Mexico City.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Newsreel cameramen in the 1920s:

"The cameramen entered into this scuffling as part of their duties. The competition was so stark that all means were valid to cover the event, or ruin the competitor's work. Some small firms sent saboteurs among the audience in sport stadiums with mirrors to reflect the sun's rays to the authorized newsreel's cameras. Signboards held on poles were pushed up suddenly to obstruct the camera field. Smoke grenades were also used for this purpose. A firm's exclusive coverage was pirated in the most diverse ways. In baseball, football or soccer stadiums, the pirate shots were taken with long focal lenses in strategic spots from nearby buildings or towers. On one occasion, a news firm installed a cameraman inside a water tower opening a hole in it to cover a sporting match because he was not allowed to film it openly. The big firms created a security corps to find pirate cameramen. But many small firms sent several cameramen, so if some were discovered others remained to obtain the coverage."

from Motion Picture Photography: A History, 1891-1960 by By H. Mario Raimondo-Souto

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"I have indeed sometimes thought that now that the House of Lords must inevitably in a short while be abolished, it would be a very good plan if the profession of literature were by law confined to its members and their wives and children. It would be a graceful compensation that the British people might offer the peers in return for the surrender of their hereditary privileges. It would be a means of support for those (too many) whom devotion to the public cause in keeping chorus girls and race horses and playing chemin de fer has impoverished, and a pleasant occupation for the rest who by the process of natural selection have in the course of time become unfit to do anything but govern the British Empire. But this is an age of specialization and if my plan is adopted it is obvious that it cannot but be to the greater glory of English literature that its various provinces should be apportioned among the various ranks of the nobility. I would suggest, therefore, that the humbler branches of literature should be practised by the lower orders of the peerage and that the barons and viscounts should devote themselves exclusively to journalism and the drama. Fiction might be the privileged demesne of the earls."

from Cakes and Ale (1930) by W. Somerset Maugham

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"carry the question farther back, but leave it still more obscure"

Today I found an interesting example of a sense lost for words – by which I mean a concept that it was once possible to express in English in one word but isn't any longer.

How would you say "bear fruit" or "pay off" or "yield results" or "benefit me" in just one word? You could say "succeed" or "flourish", but that doesn't quite capture the sense of an endeavour producing some dividend that is separable from the endeavour itself.

The OED's historical thesaurus has a section called "be advantageous or beneficial [verb (intransitive)]". Under this category, we find: dow, frame, freme, help, hold, gain, yain, it is speedful, profit, vail, speed, prow, boot, prevail, avail, mister, skill, stead, conduce. That's in chronological order of their earliest citation, from c. 950 for "dow" to 1624 for "conduce". Of those nineteen, seventeen are marked as obsolete or archaic.

That leaves only "boot" and "avail". I was unfamiliar with "boot", but apparently you can say, for instance, "It boots thee not to be compassionate." (That's from Richard II, which I studied for A-level, so at some point I must have learned this meaning of "boot", and subsequently forgotten it.)

(A lovely aside in the OED about the etymology of "boot": "An early but dubiously genuine use appears under booty adj., which, if really used by Lydgate c1430, would carry the question farther back, but leave it still more obscure.")

The OED is not ready to declare this sense of "boot" to be obsolete or archaic. The problem is, even if you could still say "it didn't boot me much to sign the contract", you couldn't say "the experiment booted" or "my efforts did not boot." Whereas you could once have said "the experiment profited", meaning "the experiment bore fruit."

That leaves "avail." We all know "it was of no avail" or "I availed myself of some biscuits". But here are some citations for "avail" from the OED under "intr. To be of value, profit, or advantage."

1489 (▸a1380) J. Barbour Bruce (Adv.) i. 338 For knawlage off mony statis May quhile awailȝe full mony gatis.
a1538 T. Starkey Dial. Pole & Lupset (1989) 25 What avaylyth hyt to have hym wych can not by wysdome use them.
1582 R. Stanyhurst tr. Virgil First Foure Bookes Æneis ii. 24 Whilst counsel auayled, Then we were of reckning.
1844 B. Disraeli Coningsby III. vii. vii. 153 What avail his golden youth, his high blood..if they help not now!

The first and third I cannot interpret. The second uses "avalyth hyt" i.e. "it avails" which is no advance on "it boots". And the fourth actually reads to me like Disraeli is using "avail" as a noun instead of a verb. So there are no citations that really show how "avail" could be used in the context of "the experiment availed" or "my efforts did not avail". Until I find one, "avail" is out.

Which leaves no word in the English language that does this job!

That is strange to me. Of course there are plenty of things for which English once had a word but the word died. But I expect most of them are obsolete behaviours or ideas. There can't be many gaps like this, where for some reason we abandoned the ability to express such a basic concept in one word, and never regained it.

As a writer, why do I care?

Firstly, because there are some sentences where the rhythm simply insists on one word instead of two. So if I can't use just one word there, I have to restructure the whole sentence.

Secondly, because the two-word substitutes aren't always viable. "Yield results" is clunky and formal; "benefit me" brings along a pronoun that isn't necessarily welcome; and "bear fruit" and "pay off" both have a tinge of metaphor, which can interfere with other metaphorical content in the sentence.

I'd like to advocate that we bring back "profit" as it was once used. Today, if you said "the experiment profited", people would be waiting for an object at the end of that sentence, because they're not used to hearing "profit" used as an impersonal intransitive. But the old sense of "profit" is there in the dictionary, long slumbering but still fit for duty. I'll finish with this excellent citation:

1658 J. Rowland tr. T. Moffet Theater of Insects in Topsell's Hist. Four-footed Beasts (rev. ed.) 1119 But for nauseating that ariseth from worms, and gnawing of the stomach, a grain of salt held in the mouth, and melted and swallowed down, profits wonderfully.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

At the Royal Academy yesterday I found myself quite moved by Joseph Cornell's Untitled (Celestial Navigation). The work is about levels of abstraction – not abstraction in the sense of non-figurative art, but abstraction in the sense that a map is an abstraction of a terrain (unless those are the same thing?) At the most abstract, we have the balls in the glasses: a binary value, like voltage in a memory cell. (Either the glass has a ball in it or it doesn't. Other works in the same series include some empty glasses.) Then the numbers in the back of the cabinet, which may be astrological tables. Then the star chart. Then the flags and pushpins on the length of driftwood, which are indicators, not quite objects in themselves. And finally the drawer at the bottom, which, with its ridge of sand, bears the closest resemblance to an actual landscape, except that the little spheres and cones scattered around still feel more symbolic than real.

But all these levels of abstraction live together in the same box. Hierarchy is forgotten. Examining it, I was reminded of Max Tegmark's mathematical universe theory, which proposes that "our external physical reality is a mathematical structure." In other words, there is no very profound difference between a constellation and an astrological table, because the constellation is itself just numbers. This seems to me exactly the argument of Untitled (Celestial Navigation). Of course, Cornell died too long ago to have heard of the mathematical universe theory – or the computational universe theory, or the simulation hypothesis, or the holographic principle, or any other modern heterodoxy that suggests reality might have its foundations in a realm much more abstract and depthless than the one we think we see. But here, in 1958, that intuition is felt.

Then again, when I went to the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston, I became adamantly convinced that Twombly's paintings are about the process of evolution by natural selection – even though they have titles like Bay of Naples and Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor. So it's possible I'm a bit too preoccupied with science when I look at art.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

In sweet-potato washing, dirty tubers were dumped by the researchers on the beach for the monkeys to eat, and Imo, a 1.5-year- old female, invented a technique of cleaning the potatoes by washing them in the stream nearby. The food-processing technique spread to her peers, their siblings and their mothers, but not to adult males, who ignored these (childish?) acts. As the spud-scrubbers matured and had offspring, the mothers passed on the habit to their youngsters, in orthodox downward vertical transmission.

Similarly, 4 years later, Imo invented wheat sluicing, in which mixed handfuls of wheat and sand were thrown into the sea. These cereals, too, had been provided by the researchers. The sand sank, the grain floated, and the wheat could easily be skimmed off the surface, this was much more efficient and less gritty than picking up grains of wheat one by one from the beach...

Western comparative psychologists and other critics continue to be dismissive of the cultural achievements of Japanese macaques.

from The Cultured Chimpanzee by William Clement McGrew

Friday, September 04, 2015

"Stager was told how in the 1930s [the Union Oil Company of California] had noticed that leaks in natural gas pipelines attracted turkey vultures. The gas contained ethyl mercaptan (aka ethanethiol), a substance that smells like rotten cabbage (also responsible for the smell of bad breath and flatus); it is also released from decaying organic matter, including animal bodies. Union Oil therefore added higher concentrations of mercaptan to the gas to help them locate leaks."

from Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead

Sunday, August 30, 2015

from Sputnik: The Shock of the Century by Paul Dickson

Of the many bits of speculation as to the next Russian move, none was quite so dramatic as that of John Rinehart of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts: “I would not be surprised,” he said, “if the Russians reached the moon within a week.” Feeding the fear was the fact that nobody really knew what Sputnik was doing up there or at first even what it looked like… Even Sputnik’s simple beep bought confusion… The CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, Army, Air Force, and other Western intelligence worked around the clock to see who would be the first to decipher the beeps. The assumption had been that important data were coming back from space. Some went out on a limb. Columnist Stewart Alsop suggested on October 13 that the Soviets had actually put a reconnaissance satellite in orbit. “There is a mounting body of evidence, taken most seriously in the Washington intelligence community, that the Soviet satellite is not blind,” he wrote, “that Sputnik has eyes to see.” Finally, one of the Russian IGY delegates in Washington revealed that there was no code and the satellite could not see. The one-watt, battery-operated transmitter was placed inside the aluminum shell simply so that it could be tracked.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

“In and around the years when the first photographs of the Earth were taken from space, speculative architectural design was inspired by the visual scale of the whole Earth as a comprehensive site condition, and spawned scores of now-canonical megastructure projects. Many proposed total utopian spaces (islands cut off from the world, per Fredric Jameson’s discussion of the utopian genre in sci-fi), including The Office for Metropolitan Architecture [OMA]’s Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture (1972) and Superstudio’s planet-spanning Continuous Monument (1969), while others sought the utopian through the maximal perforation of boundaries by ludic interfaces and absolute grids, including Archizoom’s No-Stop City (1969) or Constant’s New Babylon (1959-1974)… The merger of cities into planetary-scale conglomerations was imagined, among others, by Constantine Dioxiadis as Ecumenopolis, a single planned urban form across the whole world, and Paolo Soleri as Arcology, enclosed megacities rising into the lower atmosphere, so large they constituted their own ecosystems… They provide a link between the grandiose progressivism of high modernity (such as the massive Karl-Marx-Hof in Vienna, a neighbourhood-sized building from 1930 holding over 1,300 apartments) and ideas for extra-planetary colonies on Mars (dating at least to the late nineteenth century and perhaps best articulated in their political complexity by Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, 1993-1999)."

from "Cloud Megastructures and Platform Utopias" by Benjamin H. Bratton

Monday, August 10, 2015

Over the weekend I had an essay in the Guardian about the centenary of my favourite novel, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, and its resonances with the work of HP Lovecraft.

I should note here that the essay was heavily informed by Thomas Ligotti's brilliant The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, but the paragraph where I acknowledged him was cut. I wouldn't want to be accused, like True Detective, of cribbing from Ligotti without attribution!

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

"Fowler of Brooklyn has grafted with skin from the back and abdomen of a frog. The patient was a coloured boy of sixteen, who was extensively burned by a kerosene lamp. The burns were on the legs, thighs, buttocks and right ankle, and the estimated area of burnt surface was 247.95 square inches. The frog skin was transferred to the left buttocks, and on the right buttocks eight long strips of white skin were transferred after the manner of Thiersch. A strip of human skin was placed in one section over the frog skin, but became necrotic in four days, not being attached to the granulating surface. The man was discharged cured in six months. The frog skin was soft, pliable, and of a reddish hue, while the human white skin was firm and rapidly becoming pigmented."

from Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine (1897) by George Milbry Gould and Walter Lytle Pyle

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Malcolm Bowie, in Proust Among The Stars, analyses a long Proust sentence from Sodom and Gomorrah

"But when they see another man display a particular predilection towards them, then, whether because they fail to recognise that it is the same as their own, or because it is a painful reminder that this predilection, exalted by them as long as it is they themselves who feel it, is regarded as a vice, or from a desire to rehabilitate themselves by making a scene in circumstances in which it costs them nothing, or from a fear of being unmasked which suddenly overtakes them when desire no longer leads them blindfold from one imprudence to another, or from rage at being subjected, by the equivocal attitude of another person, to the injury which by their own attitude, if that other person attracted them, they would not hesitate to inflict on him, men who do not in the lead mind following a young man for miles, never taking their eyes off him in the theater even if he is with friends, thereby threatening to compromise him with them, may be heard to say, if a man who does not attract them merely looks at them, ‘Monsieur, what do you take me for?’ (simply because he takes them for what they are) 'I don't understand you, no, don't attempt to explain, you are quite mistaken,' may proceed at a pinch from words to blows, and, to a person who knows the imprudent stranger, wax indignant: 'What, you know this loathsome creature? The way we looks at one! A fine way to behave!'"

In single sentences built on this model, the propositional structure of the main utterance is almost smothered by subordinate material rushing forward to its aid. 'But... men who do not in the least mind... may be heard to say' is the 'main' proposition, but devices of amplification are used so intensively in the build-up to this anodyne remark that much of its force has been pre-empted by the time its moment of completion arrives. The clauses beginning 'or' are brazen queue-jumpers, and their copious display of alternative sexual motives and dilemmas in a sense tells the whole story before the sentence has developed anything resembling narrative thrust. The weakened proposition is then reinforced, but also outstripped, by the fragments of direct speech on which the sentence closes. From a list of abstract moral and psychological formulae we move to a playlet illustrating certain of these. We pass from abstraction to dramatic enactment by way of an almost characterless claim whose task, syntactically speaking, is to hold the whole thing together but whose contribution at the level of sense is easily lost in a clamour of other, subtler, voices. Meaning is destabilised by the syntactic pattern. It crystallises suddenly in this corner or that of a variegated open field, and may as suddenly dissolve again as new elements in the verbal texture rise to prominence. 'This is what it feels like to be a gay man pursuing sexual pleasure in a maze of untrustworthy signs', the sentence in its feverish motion seems to say. But inside this dynamic portrait of a specifically homosexual social scene, Proust's risk-filled syntax has another drama to enact. This is everyone's desire in perpetual displacement. This is how desire is...

The loss and the precarious restoration of meaning in sentences is Eros become visible. The hide-and-seek games that Proust's sentences play not only pay their imitative tribute to the feints, detours and side-glances that mark all sexual pursuit but offer themselves as a model for speculation, all mental efforts to make headway, in a resistant medium, towards a desired goal.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Second opinion

Snakes are recommended in five counties as intermediate agents or recipients of the very affliction they cause – snakebites – evidently on the theory that they are immune to their own poison. “To treat a snakebite,” a Shelby cure says, “kill the snake by cutting off his head. Place the body of the snake against the wound to draw out the poison.” A symbolic ritual is outlined in a Dallas example: “Catch the snake and cut him into small pieces. Build a fire and burn each piece one by one for a sure cure.” An even stranger remedy from Harris says to “cut up the snake and eat the meat raw.”

from “Magical Transference of Disease in Texas Folk Medicine” by John Q. Anderson

If you or someone you are with is bitten by a snake you should not try to catch or kill the snake.

from "Snake bites - Treatment" on the NHS website

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Before Google Alerts

In the 1870s a young Pole in Paris named Henry Romeike watched an excited artist buy two dozen copies of a newspaper in which there was a favorable notice of his recent exhibit. Disturbed by this squandering of papers and yet aware that everybody likes to see his name in print, Romeike started a new business – the world’s first press-clipping bureau…

The agencies do not claim infallibility. The 100 or so girls in a large agency who flip and mark pages at breath-taking speed seven hours a day sometimes make mistakes. Most of these arise from the interesting fact that the girls do not really read – they glance, their eyes alert for certain key words. Cartoonist John Held, for example, once received a startling clipping head “STAGE DOOR JOHN HELD BY POLICE.” Another time a dairyman interested in milk production drew “PARI-MUTUELS MILK GAMBLERS.”

Why do people subscribe to press-clipping bureaus? Strangely enough, Henry Romeike’s original observation that everybody likes to see his name in print accounts for only 10 percent of all clippings, according to the manager of one large New York bureau. Publicity today is more than a matter of satisfying vanity; it is good business. Consequently, insurance agents are interested in fires, a tombstone maker has highly practical interest in obituaries, stores or homes struck by lightning are “leads” for the man who sells lightning rods, and makers of electrical appliances seek all the items they can find about careless souls who started fires with kerosene.

One of the most unusual orders was placed by a Detroit father who wants clippings derogatory toward the theater. He is trying to discourage his daughter, a would-be actress…

It may be of interest to note that women work out better than men in the clipping bureaus, where each worker must cover the equivalent of four Gone with the Wind’s each day. The trouble with men is, they get bored – and begin to read the news.

from "When Clippings Tell The Tale", The Rotarian magazine, October 1950

I also find, in yesterday’s mail, that I owe Henry Romeike, Inc. 220 West 19th Street, N.Y., sixteen dollars for clippings, and as I have no dollars and Mr. Romeike, who is I believe by his own admittance the original Romeike, is very lovely about sending clippings, I wonder if you could have this sixteen dollars sent to him and charged to what must be rapidly becoming my account.

from a letter from Ernest Hemingway to Maxwell Perkins, 21st August 1926

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Every author's dream

'Koestler himself was soon benefiting from the Information Research Department’s propaganda campaigns. Darkness at Noon, whose depiction of Soviet cruelty had established Koestler’s credentials as an anti-communist, was circulated in Germany under its auspices. In a deal struck with Hamish Hamilton, director of the the eponymous publishing house and himself closely tied to intelligence, 50,000 copies were purchased and distributed by the Foreign Office in 1948. Ironically, at the same time, “the French Communist party had orders to buy up every single copy [of the book] immediately and they were all being bought up and there was no reason why it should ever stop being reprinted, so in this way K[oestler] was being enriched indefinitely from Communist Party funds."'

from Who Paid the Piper? by Frances Stonor Saunders, quoting Living with Koestler by Mamaine Koestler

Sunday, May 17, 2015

In the course of offering her a role in The Big Steal (1949), Howard Hughes informs Jane Greer that she is pregnant:

When The Big Steal came along, Robert Mitchum had been arrested for possessing marijuana and his leading lady Lizabeth Scott already had her wardrobe. But when she found out he had to go to jail, she said, “I don’t want to do it.” So they were trying to find someone to work with him, because they wanted to go down to Mexico the next Tuesday. Well, the phone rang, and it was Howard.
  “Bettejane” – he always called me Bettejane – “Bettejane, are you interested in doing this picture with Bob Mitchum?”
  I said, “I’d love to, Howard. I love Bob, you know that, I worked with him and I’d love to work with him again.”
  He said, “Well then, all right, but you’d have to wear Lizbeth Scott’s wardrobe. You leave next Tuesday.”
  “All right.”
  “You have anything else to tell me?”
  I said, “No, I don’t think so.”
  “You liar, you’re pregnant! You’re knocked up!”
  I said, “Am I?”
  I said, “I didn’t know, they haven’t called me yet. I did take a test, but I haven’t gotten the result of the test yet.”
  “Well, I got it, and you’re knocked up.”

from Movies Were Also Magical by Leo Verswijver

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Some events I'm doing

May 23rd: with The White Review at Outpost Gallery, Norwich
May 26th: launch of Headless at Open School East, Haggerston
June 18th: with Laura Van Den Berg at Daunt Books, Chelsea

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A preview of the novel I'm working on, from an illustration in Popular Mechanics, April 1931:

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