On Sarah Palin

Scanning over the basic facts of Sarah Palin’s life, I was immediately struck by the fact that 40% of her children are named after witches.* This may say more about me than it does about her.

Piper and Willow.

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  • Great post at Metafilter: 'In 1857, hundreds of strange objects suddenly started appearing in London antique shops: coins and medals, vases and statues, all made out of soft metal with weird designs and cryptic lettering. They were the work of two illiterate London mudlarks, William Smith and Charles Eaton, who managed to fool some of the leading archaeologists of the day into accepting their forgeries as genuine medieval antiquities.'
    (del.icio.us tags: London C19th Thames antiquities forgeries )

Occupational Hazards by Rory Stewart

Occupational Hazards is Stewart’s account of trying to administer Maysan province in southern Iraq. He’s obviously an interesting character; to quote his author bio: ‘After a brief period in the British army, he studied at Balliol College, Oxford, and then joined the Foreign Office, serving in Indonesia and Montenegro, Yugoslavia. From 2000 to 2002 he walked six thousand miles across Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. In 2003, he was posted to Iraq as CPA Deputy Governate Coordinator of the provinces of Maysan and later Dhi Qar.’

He explains that, after being away from the Foreign Office for some time, he approached them and asked to be sent to Iraq. He never quite says why; he clearly finds the work fascinating and loves the Middle East and central Asia (he has now returned to working on regeneration in Afghanistan, at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation); even so, there can’t have been many people whose immediate reaction to the invasion of Iraq was to send off a CV and ask for a job. His reward was to be given the job as supreme civilian authority in Maysan.

US Army soldiers and Iraqi hosts

The book is an account of his time trying to do that job; trying to set up some kind of administration, get reconstruction projects started, and prepare the province for handover to Iraqis. And the overwhelming impression is of chaos. The kind of broad brush stuff we’re all now familiar with — Sunni vs. Shia, moderates vs. extremists — is just the tip of the iceberg. Apparently 54 new political parties appeared in Maysan in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. There were conflicts between different tribes; there seem to have been endless different clerics, all with their own supporters; the educated urban Iraqis looked down on the rural population. Stewart had to try to achieve some kind of balance of their competing claims while also favouring the kind of moderate, secular government that the CPA aspired to producing. He also had to deal with the central administration in Baghdad, which was disorganised, ideological and unhelpful; and with the local British Army commanders, who he theoretically outranked, but who had their own priorities and were not under his direct command.

He writes well, and the book is in turns depressing, funny and, mostly, interesting. I don’t think I’m giving away the ending when I say that, despite some successes, he didn’t manage to establish a model secular democracy in his chunk of Iraq. On the other hand, if you read the book hoping to understand why the occupation hasn’t been more successful, it doesn’t provide any simple answers. He recognises the reasonableness of many of the criticisms aimed at the administration: the failure to prevent the looting immediately after the invasion, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the lack of planning generally. But his own feeling is that actually, even if all those thing had been done right, it still would not have been enough to create a peaceful, stable, democratic Iraq; that we overestimate our own powers if we think we can shape a country that way. And that we could never have planned for all the complexities anyway.

» The picture, US Army soldiers and Iraqi hosts, is taken inside the traditional Marsh Arab reed-built mudhif. I don’t know if it was taken in Maysan, but it’s certainly the right kind of building. It was taken by James Gordon and is used under a CC attribution licence.

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

The final chapter of The Origin of Species — Darwin’s ‘Recapitulation and Conclusion’ — states the case for evolution as well as any short account I have ever read. It’s tightly written, it argues a case, it summarises all the different kinds of evidence and shows clearly why they are important. It’s pithy, confident: great stuff. 

Which left me feeling look, Darwin, if you can write like that, why have the previous 400 pages been such hard work? Because he did produce some turgid paragraphs. He’s better when he’s talking about specifics — particular animals and experiments — but when he gets into generalities and abstract ideas, his prose often turns to mush. Here’s a sample sentence: 

The forms which possess in some considerable degree the character of species, but which are so closely similar to other forms, or are so closely linked to them by intermediate gradations, that naturalists do not like to rank them as distinct species, are in several respects the most important for us.

OK, that’s not particularly difficult to understand, but it doesn’t have a lot of oomph, either. Not much forward momentum to keep the reader going.

Large-flowered Bee Ophrys

That sentence is taken from the chapter ‘Variation under nature’, and part of the problem in that chapter and elsewhere is that Darwin is struggling against the limitations of his knowledge. Variation and heredity are absolutely central to the idea of natural selection, so of course he has to talk about them a lot; but without knowing about genetics, let alone DNA. And at times he seems to be floundering a bit. I’m very aware, reading it, of how much he doesn’t know; I’m curious how much he felt that lack of knowledge himself. He certainly had enough evidence of other kinds to argue convincingly that all living things evolved from a common ancestor, and that natural selection was a plausible explanation for how it happened; but without genetics there is certainly a jigsaw piece missing.

That’s not the only gap which is obvious with hindsight: for example, he talks about the distribution of species as evidence for common descent, but without continental drift, there are certain details he can’t quite explain. So if someone wanted to understand evolution, they should start with a more modern text. I suppose the question is: why read The Origin at all? Well, the immediate reason I re-read it is that we’re currently building up to Darwin Year. 2008 is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of the Darwin/Wallace theory of natural selection at a meeting of the Linnean Society, and 2009 is both 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species and also Darwin’s 200th birthday.


Also, it may be hard going by the standards of modern popular science writers, but for one of the key documents in the history of science, it’s incredibly (perhaps uniquely) accessible. I haven’t actually tried reading James Clerk Maxwell’s original papers on electromagnetism, or Einstein’s on relativity, but I don’t think it’s defeatist to say I wouldn’t understand them. Darwin is entirely manageable for a non-technical reader. He uses some technical terminology without defining it, so you might be checking the glossary a bit if you don’t know, for example, that ‘cirripedes’ are barnacles; but the book is mostly dealing with familiar concepts and entities: species and varieties, pigeons, bees, flowers. The only comparison that springs to mind is another book written at the early stages of a science, when scientists were still grappling with everyday concepts and the visible world: Galileo’s Dialogue Relating to Two New Sciences (which, by the way, is well worth reading).

And when Darwin hits his stride, when he gets stuck into the details, the book is still full of interesting material. For example, discussing the means by which plants are distributed between places:

I do not believe that botanists are aware how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds. I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case. I took, in February, three table-spoonfuls of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond. This mud, when dry, weighed only 6¾ ounces. I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew. The plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup! Considering these facts, I think it would be an inexplicable circumstance if water-birds did not transport the seeds of fresh-water plants to vast distances, and if consequently the range of these plants was not very great. The same agency may have come into play with the eggs of some of the smaller fresh-water animals.

That passage is a great demonstration of Darwin’s practical turn of mind. For someone who is known for having produced a famous theory, he was a great experimentalist. Faced with the argument that, for example, seeds couldn’t be distributed on ocean currents because salt water would kill them, he tried the experiment, leaving seeds in salt water for different periods of time to see if they would still germinate. He wanted to know more about the process of selective breeding in domestic animals, so he started breeding fancy pigeons. He wanted to know how inherited instinct could enable bees to make such elaborate and perfect honeycombs, so he provided a hive of bees with specially prepared blocks of wax to see what they would do with them.

goose barnacles

If anything the book is more convincing as an argument for the historical fact of evolution — common descent with gradual changes over time — than the theory of natural selection. He does make a good case for natural selection, mainly by analogy with selective breeding in domestic animals, but because he didn’t know about genetics or DNA, there’s an inherent fuzziness about the details right at the centre.

But his argument for evolution is I think particularly strong because he was consciously writing for an audience of educated people who believed in the immutability of species. So he points out that varieties (what we now usually call subspecies) blur indistinguishably into species, so that experts frequently disagree whether to classify them as full species or not. That different continents have basically different flora and fauna; so the animals in the Amazon are related to those of the Andes rather than those of the Congo, even though the Congo is a much more similar habitat. And oceanic islands normally have very limited fauna; that what they do have tends to be those animals that can fly (insects, birds and bats, but not other mammals) or can survive salt water (reptiles but not amphibians). And again, that the inhabitants of those islands are related to the inhabitants of the nearest continent, even when the island habitat is quite different. All these facts are easily explained by evolution; there is no reason why any of them would need to be true if species were created in place.

» To illustrate this post I thought I’d break away from the most obvious stuff (Galapagos finches etc) to pick some of the other things Darwin studied: orchids, earthworms and barnacles. The orchid photo is one I took in Crete; the earthworm is by Jonathan Spangler and is used under a CC by-sa licence; the goose barnacles are by pshab and used under a by-nc licence.


  • 'One singer referred him to another. He'd meet with these men and women and discuss lives and careers some forty years past and mostly forgotten; they appreciated his respect and inquisitiveness. Conversations would lead to questions that would lead to new singers and new conversations. My father filled hundreds of tapes, transcribed many of them… Recently, my father has approached me about helping with a project relating to these tapes… He asked if I'd be willing to help him "publish" some of these audio interviews on The Tofu Hut.'
    (del.icio.us tags: music America )

Final Olympic round-up

Well, I thought the London 2012 segment of the closing ceremony was… OK.

The whole bus stop routine was underwhelming, and the presence of David Beckham seemed a bit random, but the moment when the bus opened up like a flower was a striking image, as was Leona Lewis raising up into the air with her frilly dress trailing down behind her. And while Led Zep isn’t my kind of music — or indeed remotely contemporary, by pop standards — it did just about manage to cut through the slightly oppressive grandiosity of the Chinese ceremony. So I’ll give it a solid 6½/10. For the London opening ceremony they need to bring that up to at least 8½, but for the time being I can live with that.

Usain Bolt on Flickr, used under a CC by-sa licence.

My sporting highlight of the games was Usain Bolt. No points for originality there. I know I said the other day that the sprint events were overrated, but for once they really lived up the hype. Watching someone beat the field by such a large margin and apparently so easily was almost surreal. It just shouldn’t be possible to do that.

I suppose I ought to name-check Michael Phelps, although as all his races were on in the middle of the night, I never really engaged with his story in the same way. Is he now The Greatest Olympian Ever? Well, I suppose he might be. It’s not that he won 8 medals in Beijing: sure, that’s incredible, but I still think the greatest individual achievement at a single Games was Emil Zátopek winning the 5000m, 10000m and marathon in 1952. But if you add the five golds from Athens, Phelps has completely dominated the swimming at two Olympics now, and that might be enough to secure his place as The Greatest. Apparently he’s planning to compete in 2012: if he could come to London and win another three or four golds, that really would put him in a class of his own.

Speaking of Zatopek: OMG, the Ethiopians in the long-distance running. To have Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele both manage the 5000/10000 double was amazing. And particularly the women’s 10k and the men’s 5k; to see them sprint so easily away from the rest of the field at the end of a very fast-run race was almost as impressive in its way as Usain Bolt in the sprints. Bekele ran the last mile in under four minutes; I know the four-minute mile isn’t a big deal any more to a professional athlete, but to run one at the end of a fast 5000m… lawks.

And there’s Britain coming in fourth place on the medals table. Fourth! In Atlanta we came 36th. So three cheers for Christine Ohuruogu, Rebecca Adlington, Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Rebecca Romero, Nicole Cooke, and all the other medal winners whose names don’t spring to mind.

» photo credit: Beijing Olympics: Usain Bolt Breaks The World Record (Men’s 100 Meters) by Richard Giles, used under a Creative Commons by-sa licence.

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A thought on the Olympics

While I wait anxiously to see whether London’s contribution to the closing ceremony is horribly naff, here’s a thought: since the Games are so huge and expensive to host, perhaps the future would be to split them up between lots of different places. Embrace the technology of global communication. That way, countries that could never afford to host the whole thing could bid to host just one sport.

For two weeks, there would always be some Olympic sport going on somewhere in the world; you’d be watching the boxing from Cairo, and then the broadcaster might cut to the sailing in Biarritz, or the swimming in Miami, or the cycling in Kuala Lumpur, or the gymnastics in Prague.

You’d lose something — that sense of the attention of the World all being focussed in on one spot — but it would turn it into a truly global event. And that might be quite special as well.

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Nature’s Engraver by Jenny Uglow

 Jenny Uglow wrote the excellent The Lunar Men, about the Lunar Society that included Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and Matthew Boulton. Nature’s Engraver is a biography of the wood engraver Thomas Bewick who, born in 1753, was just about contemporary with those men. He worked in Newcastle at a time when it was just starting to turn from a small provincial town into a major industrial city, but his subject matter is overwhelmingly rural. His masterpiece was his History of British Birds, which, quite apart from its artistic merits, was a landmark in the development of British ornithology.

The sensitivity with which he manages to reproduce feathering in an awkward medium like woodcut is remarkable. But the incredibly fine detail is even more apparent in the little decorative vignettes he produced which were used to fill gaps in the text of books. Engraved into the cross section of pieces of box wood, they are rarely more than 3″ across, but they are staggeringly finely worked. In the book, which is decorated with these vignettes throughout, they are printed at life-size; but since computer screens are simply not high-enough resolution to show them that way, here’s a 2″ section enlarged to show the workmanship: 

The book is almost worth reading for the pictures, but Uglow also does a great job of evoking the period: the life of a provincial craftsman; the growth of interest in natural history that coincides, not perhaps by chance, with the coming of industry; radical politics and the response to the American and French Revolutions.

» Both pictures are taken from the website of the Bewick Society.


  • 'I remember seeing a chart about a decade ago that illustrated how dominant Johnson’s record is, and I’ve recreated it here. This chart shows the twenty fastest 200m marks of all time. Each row represents a hundredth of a second.'
    (del.icio.us tags: MichaelJohnson athletics )


  • 'Even some of our more intelligent commentators have convinced themselves that Sir Steve Redgrave is the greatest living Olympian for winning five successive golds in rowing, not seeming to realise that the sport is so elitist that it is virtually nonexistent across much of the planet.'
    (del.icio.us tags: Olympics )
  • via Daring Fireball: 'We present a framework for automatically enhancing videos of a static scene using a few photographs of the same scene. For example, our system can transfer photographic qualities such as high resolution, high dynamic range and better lighting from the photographs to the video … quickly modify the video by editing only a few still images of the scene … remove unwanted objects and camera shake from the video.' Watch the whole demo video, it's amazing.
    (del.icio.us tags: video photography )

More Olympiana

Watching someone put on a burst of pace at the end of a fast 10000m is one of the best sights in sport. Amazing stuff from Tirunesh Dibaba.

And so much more exciting to watch than the sprinters.

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The Olympic sport I’d like to see

I was thinking about whether Michael Phelps is the ‘greatest Olympian of all time’, and the relative value of medals in different events. For example, the fact that it’s even possible to enter eight events at the same Games means that Phelps has a medal-collecting advantage over, say, a boxer. And the 52 gold medals available in rowing (fourteen events, but multiple people in each boat) seems a lot for a sport with such limited global participation: those events are surely less competitive than, say, the athletics.

So how to go about levelling the field? Well, you could start by cutting events; certainly from the rowing, and probably the fencing (currently 10 events), canoeing (16), judo (14), shooting (15) and wrestling (18). But you still might need to introduce new events to the more competitive sports. In athletics, there’s clearly room for a 50m race, a 300m, a 600m, maybe 2000m and 8000m; we could revive the standing long-jump and high-jump; and learning from the swimmers, there must be room for 4x200m and 4x800m relays. If we got really desperate, we could take an idea from the boxers and weightlifters: have weight classes for the throwing events. The featherweight javelin: it’s an idea whose time has come.

But the sport which is clearly most underrepresented in Olympic medals is the most popular sport of them all: soccer. At the moment there are only two events — men and women — so with 18 players in each squad, that’s a maximum of 36 gold medals, less than are currently awarded in the rowing. So we need some new events. Obviously you’d start with an indoor/five-a-side tournament: what FIFA calls futsal; beach soccer also seems like a plausible idea. Wikipedia reveals the existence of a baffling-sounding Norwegian variant called Synchronised Football. And a penalty shootout tournament might be interesting, too.

But the one which has got me most excited is: keepy-uppy. It is, after all, like a slightly blokier version of rhythmic gymnastics. And the possibilities are endless: there’s the classic version, with the player performing a routine and being marked for the difficulty and style of his tricks. You could have doubles keepy-uppy, with two players keeping the ball in the air between them. There’s endurance keepy-uppy, although as the world record is over 19 hours, that would be a hell of an event to stage. There’s the keepy-uppy 100m sprint. And of course the magic of synchronised keepy-uppy.

I am joking about most this, but actually I would love to see keepy-uppy (or, if you prefer, freestyle football) as an Olympic event. It would be fabulous. And it might actually be a good idea to introduce futsal, but as a replacement for normal soccer: that way football could still have a presence at the Olympics without just duplicating the World Cup.

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  • 'The Orwell Prize, Britain’s pre-eminent prize for political writing, is publishing George Orwell’s diaries as a blog. From 9th August 2008, Orwell’s domestic and political diaries (from 9th August 1938 until October 1942) will be posted in real-time, exactly 70 years after the entries were written.'
    (del.icio.us tags: GeorgeOrwell diaries 1930s )
  • Good stuff from Darwin's Beagle diary today: 'Shortly after passing the first spring we came in sight of the famous tree, which the Indians reverence as a God itself, or as the altar of Walleechu… Being winter the tree had no leaves, but in their place were countless threads by which various offerings had been suspended.'
    (del.icio.us tags: CharlesDarwin C19th Argentina )

A ‘Christian nation’.

There was the first of a three-part series on TV tonight called Make Me A Christian. A group of volunteers, including a lap-dancer and a Muslim convert, are given a three-week course in Christianity by four ministers of various denominations. I watched about 20 minutes of it before I lost patience; it’s an idea that could make an interesting piece of television but in practice it both bored and irritated me.

But one particular idea requires comment: that the UK is a ‘Christian nation’ built on ‘Christian principles’. I don’t think it’s true that any of the important principles that the country is built on are particularly Christian, as it happens, but that’s not the point I want to make.

It is true that, for over a thousand years, the vast majority of the inhabitants of these islands have been Christians. A comfortable majority of British people still are. So, historically and demographically, there is an obvious sense in which it is true to say that the UK is ‘a Christian country’.

But you could use exactly the same arguments to say this is a white country. And if someone was to start saying that the UK is a White nation, built on White principles, we would all immediately understand that their intention was to exclude and belittle.

I know the analogy is not perfect. And I’m not going to claim that, as an atheist, I feel like I’m the victim of any terrible prejudice (though if I was Hindu, Muslim or Jewish I might feel differently). But when an evangelical preacher like the presenter of Make Me A Christian describes the UK as a ‘Christian country’, I’m pretty sure he’s suggesting that his claim to Britishness is better than mine.

I do not accept that this is true.

» The picture is of a Christian being burnt by Christians because of his Christian beliefs; an example of the Christian principles so important to British history.

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Yay for Nicole Cooke!

I wasn’t particularly excited about the Olympics, this year, but I just caught the last 15 or 20 minutes of the women’s road cycling race to see Nicole Cooke narrowly win our first gold medal in the middle of a downpour, and got completely caught up in it.

It’s magic. Never fails.

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Opening ceremony debrief

As I’ve said before, although I’m a  supporter of London hosting the Olympics, my big worry is that we will come up with a feeble, amateurish opening ceremony. So I watched the Chinese version with interest.

We knew they were keen to impress: well, consider me impressed. There is no way London is going to match that in terms of sheer scale and organised manpower. The Chinese put on a world class display of making-patterns-out-of-groups-of-people. So I hope we don’t even try to compete with that.

On the other hand I didn’t actually enjoy it that much. The two best bits were the spectacular opening with the massed ranks of glowing drums, and the lighting of the flame, which was a great touch of theatre. Most of the rest of it, impressive as it was, seemed a bit forgettable.

And these ceremonies always seem a bit ponderous. I appreciate that it’s physically difficult to make these huge-scale things happen quickly, and that given the amount of time and money that has gone into them they want to do them justice, but it would be great to see someone do an opening ceremony that really rattled along. Instead of an hour-long show with a great effect every four minutes, I want to see a half-hour show with a wow moment every thirty seconds. Like a finely-honed theatrical performance: if you went to the theatre to see a non-verbal performance, a dance/clowning/physical comedy type show, you would expect something to be happening all the time. I would love to see an opening ceremony that had that kind of pace to it. How do you do that for a whole stadium full of people? I don’t know.

In fact the whole ceremony could usefully be done more quickly. It’s hard to see how you could speed up the parade of the athletes, short of having them come in both ends of the stadium at once, but all the ceremony at the end — the speeches, the taking of the oaths of the athletes and judges, the carrying of the Olympic flag into the stadium, the Olympic hymn — if you could find ways to make that happen faster, without breaking with tradition too much, it would be a vast improvement. Perhaps they could carry in the Olympic flag while the speeches are going on, for example. The one part of that whole rigmarole which is a great moment is the entry of the Olympic flame; most of the rest of it is dull.

I would love the London opening ceremony to aim for exciting and fun, rather than impressive and grand. And not just because any attempt to do grand is going to look second rate compared to Beijing. London is a city of theatres: let’s put on a show. Something creative, surprising, and above all dynamic.

» Photo credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images. Taken from the official website.

Read the world: a map

I’ve made an interactive map to show which countries I’ve read books from.

Short version: I’ve read books from the countries marked blue or green, but not the ones marked yellow or red.

Blue are books I had already read before starting the challenge.
Green are books read since starting the challenge. Red is for countries I haven’t read yet; a black dot means a country I have an idea for.
Yellow is for countries where I have a copy of the book waiting to be read.

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