Archive for December, 2003

Happy New Year

Wednesday, December 31st, 2003

When I was a young man, I used to think my problems were due to interesting and personalised character flaws, which other people would envy if they thought they could have them. Nowadays I realise that they are largely the result of conwardice and idleness. This ought to be an encouraging reflection, since these are in theory vices that I can do something to correct. Why is it then so hard?

I did publish a damn good book last year, in both England and America. The American edition is rather better published, and has pictures. Improve your new years, and mine: buy it.

Interesting research tools

Wednesday, December 31st, 2003

There’s a list here, via Metafilter. I had been going to mark the 1000th posting here with a descant on futility and failure, as is traditional on New Year’s Eve. This is more useful as well as more entertaining.

A brush with greatness

Monday, December 29th, 2003

I was in the middle of an anecdote about two Nobel Prize winner when the telephone rang. It was a third, Sydney Brenner. I answered, as I always answer the phone “Brown”. This is apparently a syllable that people find hard to parse, for the unmistakeable South African voice at the end of the line said “This is Sydney.”
“Oh. What an unexpected pleasure!”
“Now that the high-water mark of Christmas is over, I just wanted to thank you for the bottle of whisky you sent me for Christmas.”

“But I didn’t”, I said. I hadn’t actually spoken to him since the grand worm festival in September, when he told me that there were 24 errors of fact in the worm book, but declined to name any of them.

He asked how my Christmas had been, grumbled about his health, and said how nice it had been of me to visit. At this point, I asked whether he was really trying to talk to Andrew Brown, and he said no. He must have misdialled. There was a sticky pause, and he hung up without much ceremony.

After that, I was so affected that I got a nosebleed.

Do frogs’ eyes follow you?

Monday, December 29th, 2003
Apparently not: Oliver Sacks has a rather disappointing roundup of consciousness books in the NYRB which claims that
Whatever the mechanism, the fusing of discrete visual frames or snapshots is a prerequisite for continuity, for a flowing, mobile consciousness. Such a dynamic consciousness probably first arose in reptiles a quarter of a billion years ago. It seems probable that no such stream of consciousness exists in an amphibian, like a frog, which shows no active attention, and no visual following of events. The frog does not have a visual world or visual consciousness as we know it, only a purely automatic ability to recognize an insect-like object if this enters its visual field, and to dart out its tongue in response. It has been said that a frog’s vision is, in effect, no more than a fly-catching mechanism.
So a frog’s eye is just a motion sensor, and not a very complex one at that. Dragonflies, with much smaller brains (though proportionately much larger eyes) are able to catch prey on the wing. Intuitively it seems a more complex and admirable thing to fling your whole body after an insect than just your extensible tongue. Perhaps it isn’t very much more complicated. That would depend on the control mechanisms of dragonfly flight. If the beating of the wings, and their pitch, are sealed off into autonomous modules, then it might not require a huge amount o extra circuits to be able to say “hard astern” or “zoom right 45 degrees”.

It is not necessary, at this point, to write in pointing out that the dragonfly has no inner, Cartesian dragonfly captain issuing these commands.

Gather round the wireless

Sunday, December 28th, 2003

At 9.30 this evening, for a programme of astonishing perspicacity and excitement on Radio Four. It is also available on the Internet thingy for foreign listeners. Special thanks to Simon Sarmiento who pointed out that the blurb copy contains a word I didn’t write, but wish I had invented: “Pontificancy”.

Puritans and population

Friday, December 26th, 2003

Here’s an odd fact: among Western women, breastfeeding does not much suppress fertility, whereas among hunter-gatherers it does. In the US,on average, women start menstruating about eight weeks after giving birth whether or not they breast feed their babies, whereas among the !Kung bushmen who always breastfeed, the cycle does not resume for anything up to three years.

Part of the difference is to be explained by nourishment. The average daily calorific intake of the Bushmen women seems to be about 1100 calories. The average for modern Americans must be at least twice that. But it turns out there is another cultural difference. The Bushmen don’t expect their babies to sleep through the night, and feed them on demand, as often as eight times an hour. Western women who feed in the same style won’t menstruate for up to nine months after birth, and so aren’t fertile in that time either.

So far, I have lifted the facts from this rather thought-provoking paper (via), But there is a twist. The Puritans of New England combined extraordinarily brutal and coercive child-rearing practices with unmatched fertility. In Waltham, Massachussetts, in the 1730s, the average marriage produced 9.7 children; the Puritan emigration to New England stopped at around 21,000 in 1641, and this population produced 16 million descendants by 1988.

I can’t find an exact reference to puritan breast-feeding practices in Albion’s Seed, but it would be astonishing if the Puritans had allowed their babies to determine when they should be fed. It was certainly among their modern descendants that the idea of the four-hourly feed arose and flourished. So this regulated breast feeding would have entirely removed the contraceptive effects of lactation, and supplied another reason for the high fertility rates of the Puritans (or, as they would see it, another sign of God’s blessing).

A hard crossword

Wednesday, December 24th, 2003

The weekend Financial Times has had a peculiarly evil general knowledge crossword for the last two or three years: it used to be in the weekend magazine, and migrated to the main section in the autumn. We attempt it every week, and almost every week I learn a new word from it. I cheat of course. I don’t think it would be possible for anyone to solve without access to a library, or for anyone but the most gifted and learned to solve it without Google and the acronym faculty of the OED.

Among the answers this week, I have found two old french words, one classed as archaic by the OED (“Virelay” and “Veilleuse”, respectively a stanza form and a night light), the nickname for a shrike (“Nine killer”) and a term for radical sceptics, “nullifidian”. I still have not found “A Swabian dance in triple time, or an old German” — ?l?a?m, nor “A ruffian, informally” — ???g?o.

Finnish manhood

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2003

I have just finished Mikael Niemi’s book Popular Music and I’m breathing in exhausted wheezes, I’ve been laughing so hard. It is the story of a young man’s growing up in the utmost extremity of Swedish lapland, in the town of Pajala, on the Torne river, which forms the border between Finland and Sweden. They are very far north, about 150 miles above the Arctic Circle. Strong drink and home-distilled pentecostalism are the only diversions. Men are hard and women are juicy. Do not read the set-piece contests of manliness if you are standing up, or in the hearing of strangers. You will fall over; people will look at you with pity and alarm.

The epilogue catches perfectly the endless withdrawing melancholy of summer evenings in the high north, when pleasure goes on so long it turns into an inexpressible sadness.


They don’t make convent girls like this any more

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2003

The greatest pleasures of the Daily Telegraph are A.N. Wilson’s column on Mondays, and the obituaries. The novelist’s imagination never approaches some of the stories in the obits; This one, about a rich and spoiled convent girl, who lost her virtue to an Italian hotel keeper named Hannibal at the age of 17, but found her metier fighting alongside dashing lovers in the French Foreign Legion, is one of the most astonishing,


Thursday, December 18th, 2003

The christmas present I would like to give my mother is a ride in a Tiger Moth from Duxford aerodrome. Her brother Tony was a Spitfire pilot, and she herself was taken up in a biplane in Calcutta in 1934, when she was seventeen. She loved it; but she says she’s too old now and every year it gets harder to persuade her that she isn’t.

Instead, we decided to buy her a facial at “Angie’s” in the High Street. Rejecting as somehow tactless their “anti-ageing treatment”, we ended up with the standard hour-long treatment. It is marketed under the quintessentially Essex name of Flashé Beauté. We may no longer be able actually to kill foreigners, but let them dread what we do to any of their accents that fall onto our hands.