Monthly searches

some search-engine queries that led to this blog in March:

racism against blacks photo
self portrait poems about laughter
ashley cole is a muslim
pictures of peacocks mating
ten different animals that live in the sea
exotic beach bunns

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Atheism again

I said a few posts ago, about my own atheism, “I don’t believe in unicorns either, but I’m not about to go to any meetings about it.” Well, I haven’t been going to any atheist meetings, but I have been reading the comment threads at Pharyngula, which is a pretty good internet equivalent.

My own stance on evolution and religion is hard-line: I think the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, that anyone who doesn’t accept it is just plain wrong, and that standard compromise of evolution being somehow guided by God is just a muddle-headed cop-out. I get as angry as the next atheist at attempts to get creationism/ID taught in biology lessons. And as a social liberal, I don’t have much time for Christian fundamentalism in any circumstance, and I’ve done my fair share of internet Christian-baiting.

And yet, despite my own intellectual intolerance and the fact I share all the biases of the commenters at Pharyngula, I still find the atmosphere there toxic. There’s so much energy being expended on hostility and derision, such a sense of superiority on display. Anyone who rejects evolution – or believes in God, really – must obviously be an idiot or a liar. There’s not even an attempt to empathise with anyone who values faith over reason.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m getting soft. Or maybe I just recognise my own worse qualities in the people there. I should probably say, to be fair, that not everyone there matches the description I’ve just given. Perhaps no-one does, really; but that’s the overall tone of the site. And I should also point out the endless provocation from the anti-evolution people. But still. I’m tempted to say that I think it’s bad strategy, that they’re alienating more people than they’re persuading, but I have no idea. What I do think is that, for want of a less spiritually loaded term, it’s just bad karma.

hardbacks vs. paperbacks

John Barlow has this to say about hardbacks:

Personally, I think hardbacks are a disaster for the emerging writer. Who the hell wants their book out at $25 instead of $15? It’s crazy. How many readers regularly plump for new/unknown writers in hardback? It’s an extra ten dollars that you are risking.[…]

My first book came out in the UK in hardback, and just to cap it all they upped the cover price to a fairly steep £15 ($25ish) just before publication. Who on earth was going to pay that for an unknown writer of short fiction? Even friends winced. The book flopped on the Roman scale, and paperbacks were never mentioned.

(via The Reading Experience)

His comments on the economics of the thing seem like good sense to me (not that I’m a publisher or an economist). But also, on a personal level: I hate hardbacks. I can’t be the only one. They’re heavier, they take up more room in your briefcase/handbag/pocket/luggage/bookshelves/bedside table, they have pointy corners, and the dustcovers go missing or get ripped. Offered a choice of paperback and hardback at the same price, I’d take the paperback every time. Having to pay an extra tenner for the hardback just makes me feel ripped off, and I only do it if I’m very very eager to read something. Far more often, I see something that looks good, decide to wait for the paperback, and never get around to buying it. It is, basically, a fucking stupid system, and the sooner publishers make paperback originals standard the better.


Arsenal looked pretty damn good against Juventus last night. I’d love it if they won the Champion’s League, not just because they’re a British and London team but because it would be a bit more sand kicked in the face of Roman Abramovich.

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page vs performance

Ros Barber is annoyed by the use of the term ‘performance poet’ in a disparaging way and “can’t see the sense in perpetuating the page/performance divide”. George Szirtes thinks the distinction is useful, and makes a good point about the intimacy and privacy of reading poetry from the page.

One-to-one reading is like reading a letter. Its context is concentration, direct address, detachment, the sense of being alone with experience, language and little else.

I basically agree with Szirtes. I think of poetry as a written medium that should work orally, rather than an oral medium that happens to be recorded in writing. A good poem should have been painstakingly written to get everything the poet wants into the words themselves, and the very idea of ‘performance’, with its implication of adding something to the poem, offends my sense that the words should be everything.

Of course if a poet is going to give readings, they should try to do them as well as possible; but for me, that means a careful, thoughtful reading-aloud of the poem, rather than an attempt to make it into a microdrama. I find poetry readings by actors are often unbearable for that very reason – they tend to use the poem as the script for a performance, rather than effacing themselves and trying to do the best possible job of communicating the poem.

a pensée

Although my own main interest is birds, I think if I was advising someone on a natural-history related hobby to take up, I might suggest flowers or insects. I think it’s a great virtue to look closely at the little things. You miss the real action if you tromp through the hills, admiring the view but not noticing the wild flowers at your feet.

You don’t have to pick just one interest, of course. I did much of my early birding with one of my teachers who was also keen on flowers and had a moth trap. He was the one who showed me that, if you look the wrong way through binoculars and bring them very close to something, they act as a powerful magnifying glass.

Mask of the Week

A few weeks ago I posted the mummy mask of Satdjehuty, a very glamorous and stylised Egyptian mask from about 1400 BC. To give some indication of the incredible continuity of Ancient Egyptian culture, here’s the mummy mask of Pachons, from 1600 years later in Roman Egypt:

That’s also from the British Museum. here’s what they have to say about it:

Excavations in the later layers of debris over the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari have revealed that part of the area was used as a cemetery in the middle Roman period. A small number of the mummies found were adorned with masks. On the basis of the style of their hair and dress, they have been dated to the third century AD. They presumably belonged to people of high status, as the area of Deir el-Bahari was, and still is, a holy one.

The owner of this mask, Pachons, son of Psesarmese, is portrayed wearing a long-sleeved cream-coloured tunic. Around his head is decoration in yellow, in imitation of gold. In his hands he carries a pot and a small garland of orange flowers. The panel at the bottom shows a representation of Sokar, the god of the Memphite necropolis (cemetery).

There are remains of pieces of plaited linen which either attached the mask to the mummy or attached a wooden label, which bore the name of the deceased.

Birds, history and stuff

When I started planning a trip to Andalucía, I posted a message to BirdForum asking whether my plans were practical. One of the people who replied was John Butler, who, I’ve since discovered, not only runs bird tours there but actually wrote the book on birding in the area. One of the things he said was:

Do not miss Sevilla. It is a beautiful city and well worth visiting for the sights of the city, but there are also lots of birds to be seen. Lesser Kestrels live in large numbers around the cathedral and these will be joined by Pallid Swifts from late March onwards. Lots of good birding can also be done in the Maria Louisa gardens, less than a km from the historic centre of the city.

I can’t tell you how much it made me smile to read that “Lesser Kestrels live in large numbers around the cathedral”. There’s something special about going to a place for the history and architecture, and seeing good birds there. Partially it’s just because it’s double the pleasure, but also the bird makes the place more memorable and the place makes the bird more memorable. And because birds play a large part in my sense of place, they can bring somewhere to life beyond its historical context.

Some examples – White Storks nesting on the top of marble columns in the ruins of Ephesus; a pair of Scops Owls in a tree outside the museum at Corinth; Cirl Bunting at Mycenae, Long-legged Buzzard at Troy. Perhaps the best of the lot – swirling flocks of thousands of Alpine Swifts coming in to roost in the walls of Fez in Morocco.

England vs. India

I must admit, after the humiliation in Pakistan, I was starting to lose faith, but England’s performance to tie the series in India without Vaughan, Trescothick, Simon Jones or Ashley Giles, and for the last game without Harmison and Cook as well, was seriously impressive.

BTW, isn’t Marcus Trescothick just the perfect name for the hero of a bodice-ripper? Even better than the current Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Education and Skills, whose name is Lord Adonis. I kid you not. Perhaps Lord Adonis could be the scheming, predatory English aristocrat, and Marcus Trescothick could be the swarthy, taciturn Cornishman who rescues the heroine from his clutches.

“Oh my darling, I know I’m vulnerable to well-pitched-up deliveries outside off stump, but can’t you see I love you?”

more atheism

I think I’ll move this out of the comments into its own post:

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

from here via Metafilter. I have to admit, as a white middle-class straight man, I never expected to see myself appearing at the bottom of a list like that.

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Transitional species

I was looking back at old PFFA threads yesterday, and there was an argument about religion, evolution and so on during which someone asserted that “there are no verifiable fossil records of transitions from one species to another.” This morning I feel inclined to make a point which I don’t think is always appreciated by people who have never had to deal with issues of taxonomy; which is that, quite apart from the fossil record, transitional species are all around us.

I should probably start by establishing what a species is. A canonical species is a population of animals that can interbreed freely with each other and only with each other. In evolutionary terms, one species becomes two at the moment when the populations diverge so much that the split becomes irreversible. Because evolution works by a process of gradual changes, there will always be an ambiguous period when it is unclear whether that split has occured.

The obvious mechanism for a split happening is that two geographically separate populations develop in different directions. On the local level, the vast majority of species are easily separable from each other, but on the broader view, ambiguities about species status are almost the norm.

Let’s talk about wrens. To Europeans, ‘the’ wren is a familiar bird; tiny, loud-voiced, with a place in folklore and poetry. Most don’t realise that wrens are actually a New World family. All over the Americas there are dozens of species of wren, including some really quite large species:

Cactus Wren, originally uploaded by Bournemouth Pilot.

But at some point, one species, Troglodytes troglodytes, made it across the Atlantic or the Baring Straits and spread all across Eurasia. The particular species is still found in North America, where it’s known as the Winter Wren. It probably came across fairly recently, in biological terms, because it’s still similar enough across its range to be classified as a single species, and there are very very few species of small, non-migratory birds which are native to both North America and Eurasia. Nonetheless, there’s enough local variation – in colour, size, proportion – that it is classified into no fewer than 46 sub-species. These are two of them; the first was taken in mainland Scotland so is presumably Troglodytes troglodytes indigenus:

This is T. t. zetlandicus taken in the Shetland Islands (i.e. about 100 miles north of Scotland):

zetlandicus is slightly larger, slightly darker and greyer, and has a slightly longer tail. The differences are small, but consistent. In the opinion of the taxonomists, none of the 46 subspecies of Winter Wren are so distinct as to represent a permanent split. I suppose the implication is that, if a few Shetland wrens were taken to the mainland, they would be absorbed into the local population. But given a few thousand years more, perhaps they will be so distinct that they will need full species status. Or perhaps that population will die out, from disease or freak weather. Or perhaps wrens from the mainland make it across the water just about often enough to keep the gene pool from diverging completely.

This is what a transitional species looks like. Boring, isn’t it? Not a monkey-man or a walking fish, just a rather drab bird which is a bit larger and a bit drabber than its closest relatives. That’s what evolution at the dirty end is like – grindingly slow and mundane.

One more example. The first is a Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias, from North America, the second is a Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea, found across Eurasia.

Looking at them, there’s no doubt at all that they are descended from the same species. Some time a few thousand years ago, or a few tens of thousands of years ago, enough herons crossed the ocean in one or other direction to establish a breeding population. It was recent enough that the two species look extremely similar, but they are distinguishable; the Great Blue has a darker neck and red on the thighs and underwing coverts, and in breeding plumage has more plumes on the neck.

The world is full of pairs of species that are so similar that they obviously split from the same species fairly recently, and subspecies that are recognisably different from each other. Taxonomists change their mind about classification all the time as research continues, splitting species up or lumping them together. For example, when I first saw Hoopoe in Africa about 15 years ago, my bird book said it was the same species as the Hoopoes in Europe. But according to Avibase, different taxonomists split Hoopoe into different combinations of four different species: Eurasian Hoopoe, Central African Hoopoe, African Hoopoe and Madagascar Hoopoe. For example, the fourth edition of Clements recognised two species, African and European; the fifth edition demoted African Hoopoe to a subspecies but promoted Madagascan Hoopoe to a full species.

Taxonomy is an important and useful exercise in establishing the relationships between animals, but the neatness of the categories can be misleading. The whole scheme of putting animals into a sequence of different boxes makes it look like you’re establishing fundamental patterns in the organisation of life:

Shetland Island Wren

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Troglodytidae
Genus: Troglodytes
Species: T. troglodytes
Subspecies: T. t. zetlandicus

But most of the categories have no special status. The species is the closest thing to a well-defined unit that has some kind of observable reality, and even species, as I hope I’ve indicated, are a lot less clear-cut than you might imagine. All the others are just approximate indications of relatedness. Two species in the same genus are very similar and therefore closely related; if they’re only in the same family, they’re a bit less closely related, and so on.

That’s not to say that the individual categories – the order Passeriformes, for example – are imprecise or misleading; but the term ‘order’ has no definable meaning, beyond “a rank between class and family”. If taxonomists feel the need to make finer distinctions, they just add in new ranks, like a superorder or a suborder. Don’t let the neatness of the taxonomical hierarchy fool you into thinking that the tree of life is correspondingly neat.

[All photographs © their respective photographers]

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It’s a whole different world.

This article about atheists in Texas (via Pharyngula) is just mind-bogglingly odd to me. I grew up in secular, middle-class London where the default position was a casual agnosticism, so the image of atheists as a secretive minority, afraid to give their name in a newspaper interview, seems surreal. The flipside of that is the presentation of atheists as fiercely rationalist and potentially campaigning ideologues, who go to atheist meetings. What do you do at an atheist meeting? All sit in a room together not believing? It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Just like Christians, most of the non-believers I know are that way because they were brought up like that. I’m wary of attempts to make atheism into either an alternate belief system or a political cause. I mean, I don’t believe in unicorns either, but I’m not about to go to any meetings about it.

Of course, I can see that if I lived in America, it might seem more important, both because of the overwhelmingly religious culture and because the constitutional separation of church and state makes it into a political issue. There’s an irony in the fact that in the UK, which has a constitutional intertwining of church and state, we tend to be suspicious of overt religiosity in our politicians, while American politics practically demands it.

I remember a few years ago reading an article in the Economist which argued, in the context of abortion, that the US Constitution actually tended to inflame political debates, because the insistence on absolute and inalienable rights makes both sides inflexible and removes the chance of compromise. Specifically, it means that, whereas in Europe, the focus of the debate tends to move quite rapidly onto specifics which can be farmed off onto technical committees – the maximum age of a fetus that can be aborted, whether a woman has to see a doctor before getting an abortion – in the States, there’s always this central totemic Supreme Court decision that hangs over the whole subject, and the possibility of the decision being overturned. Once the sides have branded themselves in the rhetoric of absolute rights – the ‘right to life’ and the ‘right to choose’ – it becomes all-or-nothing. Similarly with obscenity and hate-speech laws vs. free speech, or the right to bear arms.

I don’t know whether the separation of church and state has played an important part in shaping American religious culture; the French, who have the same constitutional separation, seem to be pretty Godless. It certainly politicises the debate on teaching evolution in schools and prevents the obvious compromise of teaching Genesis in religious education classes and Darwin in biology, though. And although I completely agree that natural selection is the only origin theory children should be taught in biology, the debate shouldn’t be about constitutionality. It should be about teaching the overwhelming scientific consensus.

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Salsa di Speck

I made spaghetti with a speck sauce today. Speck is a kind of Germano-Italian lightly smoked dry-cured ham. Similar to prosciutto, but the smoking just gives it a slightly different flavour.

Anyway, the recipe was from Gastronomy of Italy by Anna del Conte, a book I would generally recommend. Not that I’ve tried any of the competition.

Cut the speck into strips. Saute it in some butter for a few minutes, then add some ground saffron and black pepper, stir for a mintue or so, and add a splash of white wine. When the wine has almost boiled away, add a little cream, bring to the boil, and take off the heat.

When the pasta is cooked, add to the pan with the sauce, stir-fry it for a minute to heat it up and mix it through, add a generous amount of parmesan, and serve.

The ham, parmesan and cream make it rather carbonara-ish, but using speck instead of pancetta and the addition of the saffron just make it a bit different and a touch more sophisticated. Yummy.

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Gaming and art

With Shigeru getting his French knighthood and the British Academy of Film and Television Art giving awards for computer games, I was mulling over the old computer-games-as-art question. The comparison is inviting, not least because games are full of things which were historically the domain of other art forms – visuals, music, dialogue, narrative and so on. And I have no doubt that, as the industry develops, there will be games that demand to be regarded as important artworks. I just wonder what they’ll look like.

The normal game dynamic is that the player is continually attempting to complete tasks in order to progress to the next part of the game. The task could be almost anything – to kill enough zombies, get around a track quickly enough, solve a puzzle, make enough money – but the usual experience is of being stuck much of the time, of repeatedly attempting the same thing, or of wandering around aimlessly trying to work out what you should be doing. Much of good game design is trying to keep the player just the right amount frustrated.

And however much your character interacts with other characters, the central experience is of playing against the game. The storyline and characterisation are fundamentally a sideshow. They add flavour and help keep you engaged when you might get too frustrated and stop playing, but despite endless claims over the years of more intelligent interactivity, the narrative isn’t what drives the game forward, it’s just the backdrop to the action.

It’s hard to see that task-completion dynamic as a basis for a work of great art – something rich, nuanced, emotionally and intellectually engaging – and one possibility would be to make things that don’t even pretend to be ‘games’. One trope that’s been doing the rounds for years now is the idea that, as games get more sophisticated, they’ll become more like interactive movies. Well, an interactive art movie would presumably not play like a game, in that there would be no pre-defined objectives; it would be more like a fluidly evolving scenario you could take part in. The technical difficulties in trying to create genuinely open-ended situations with complex, believable characters would be staggering, of course, but if it could be done it would be interesting.

Even more interesting, perhaps, would be a game which harnessed the task-completion dynamic in some way, and used it in the service of something more sophisticated. I can’t see what that would be; but that’s probably just a failure of imagination on my part.

hable despacio por favor

I’ve been trying to learn a little Spanish before going on holiday. I have no illusions that a few weeks of cramming will enable me to walk alongside the Rio Guadalquivir reading Lorca in the original – or even make small talk about the weather – but at least it might give me a starting point when reading menus and trying to find the right bus. My vestigial French and Latin seem to be even less useful than I expected, although trying to learn the verb forms in the present tense did give me flashbacks of doing my amo amas amat, amamus amatis amant.

I’ve been using an excellent open-source javascript flashcard program called jMemorize. You gotta love the open-source people.

EDIT: I just realised I that I even got the title of this post wrong. That doesn’t bode well for me developing mad skillz in conversational Spanish.

MAKE, folk art, and

I love MAKE: Blog. Not because I actually want to make my own automated cocktail dispenser or LED tank-top that plays Conway’s Game of Life, or even an iPod Nano arcade cabinet. But I love the fact that there are people who do these things. A while ago, I went to the Folk Archive exhibition at the Barbican, and said:

It was an exhibition of contemporary British folk art, but that term was interpreted extremely broadly; the exhibition includes (some of these are photos rather than the actual object): trade union banners, graffiti, prison art, modified cars, costumes from traditional festivals, prostitute calling cards, sectarian murals, shop signs, painted false nails, football fanzines, protest placards, crop circles, sand castles, flower arrangements…

The sheer range of objects makes it hard to know what to say. Many of them were complete tat – unremarkable examples of mundane objects – but seeing them all together one did get a sense of a huge wealth of amateur, unofficial creativity. I enjoyed it and found it curiously cheering.

Whatever you think of ‘folk art’ as a category, and whether or not you think an iPod Nano MAME cabinet fits that category, what does apply to the stuff at MAKE is “a huge wealth of amateur, unofficial creativity”. People making stuff, in their spare time, because they want to. Love it.

I admit I find it harder to be so cheerfully enthusiastic about the reams and reams of bad poetry on the internet; but even if I don’t want to read the stuff, I’m glad it exists.

Sir Shigeru

Shigeru Miyamoto has been made Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Damn straight. If the man who invented Mario and Zelda doesn’t deserve a knighthood, who does?

That doesn’t make it any less annoying that the release date of The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess has now been pushed back by a year since its original projected release last November, but I don’t begrudge Miyamoto-san a bit of non-industry recognition.

via wmmna

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Hummingbird names

Roddy has a list of some interesting names of birds found in India over at Vitamin Q. I can’t resist adding some of the species of hummingbird found in Venezuela:

Glowing Puffleg
Mountain Velvetbreast
Lazuline Sabrewing
Golden-bellied Starfrontlet
Spangled Coquette
Gorgetted Woodstar
Forktailed Woodnymph
White-necked Jacobin
Fiery Topaz
White-vented Plumeleteer
Black-eared Fairy
White-bearded Hermit
Pale-tailed Barbthroat
Booted Racket-tail
Sapphire-spangled Emerald
Merida Sunangel
Green-breated Mango

And that’s without even getting into all the non-hummingbird names, like the Oleaginous Hemispingus, the Red-ruffed Fruitcrow and the Striped Woodhaunter.