25 November 2011

The earth hath bubbles, as the water has...

At first sight...a simple [autogenic] molecular system doesn't appear to have much to do with the emergence of function, or value, much less consciousness. But upon closer examination, these teleological-like properties turn out to ultimately depend on some variant of the self-referential circularity of this sort of formative process. This is because the causal circularity between these interdependent, self-organised molecular processes creates an unambiguous site of "self": its intrinsic capacity for self-creation constitutes a precise self/non-self distinction which is independent of any specific material embodiment. And it is this "self" that most needs to be explained before we can even begin to consider the nature of consciousness.
-- Terrence Deacon, who argues that both the origins of life and the origins of consciousness depend on the emergence of self: the organisational core of both is a form of self-creating, self-sustaining, constraint-generating process.

(Image: Paramount Bridge by Alan E Taylor 'You could walk right over this bridge without realising that it is there.')

24 November 2011


Studies suggest that long-term climate models up to the year 2300 are missing key positive feedbacks that could send global temperatures towards levels high enough to melt the ice, if not over the entire Gamburtsevs, then at least large parts of even Antarctica for the first time in over 30 million years:
In particular, the release of methane from melting Arctic permafrost has not yet been factored in. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but remains in the atmosphere for only 10 years on average before it reacts with hydroxyl radicals in the air to form CO2. However, a large release of methane from melting permafrost could swamp the hydroxyl supply, allowing the methane to linger in the atmosphere for 15 years or more, further amplifying the warming. 
Some feedbacks never before considered might also come into play... In the future oceans may store less carbon. Normally some atmospheric carbon is lost at sea, buried in the carcasses of tiny marine animals. But sediment from the Eocene contains little carbon, suggesting that this process failed during the last hothouse...
Reversing this?

22 November 2011

The Gentle Ape

Sara Blaffer Hrdy’s gracefully written, expert account of human behavior focuses on the positive, and its most important contribution is to give cooperation its rightful place in child care. Through a lifetime of pathbreaking work, she has repeatedly undermined our complacent, solipsistic, masculine notions of what women were meant “by nature” to be. Here as elsewhere she urges caution and compassion toward women whose maternal role must be constantly rethought and readjusted to meet the demands of a changing world. Women have done this successfully for millions of years, and their success will not stop now. But neither Hrdy nor I nor anyone else can know whether the strong human tendency to help mothers care for children can produce the species-wide level of cooperation that we now need to survive.
-- Melvin Konner

16 November 2011

Killing orangutans

Researchers estimate that between 750 and 1,800 orang-utans were killed in the year leading up to April 2008. In previous years, however, things were even worse: the researchers calculate that between 1,950 and 3,100 were killed each year. These killing rates are higher than previously thought and are high enough to pose a serious threat to the continued existence of orangutans in Kalimantan.
-- report, original paper.

15 November 2011

'To find or follow a track'

photo: Guy Moreton
'It seems to me,' [Wittgenstein] will recall years later of these months, 'that I had given birth to new paths of thought within me': 'Es kommt mir so vor, als hätte ich damals in mir neue Denkbewegungen geboren.' The word he uses for 'paths of thought', Denkbewegungen, is a coinage that draws attention to itself. It might be translated as 'thought-movements', or 'thought-motions', but with the added implication of thoughts that are brought into being by means of motion along a path (Weg). The coinage recalls the etymology of the English verb 'to learn', which has its roots -- its routes -- in the proto-Germanic term *liznojan, meaning 'to find or follow a track'.
-- from Way Rights by Robert Macfarlane in Archipelago 6, another collection of essays and other works as polished and beautiful as river pebbles. Catchments by John Elder -- a meditation on the work of Tim Robinson in Connemara and Elder's own Green Mountains in Vermont -- is a wonder.

If tracks can be ways of thought then single words can sometimes be marker stones pointing the way.  Among those I have learned or rediscovered today are:

10 November 2011

Happy feet

As The Browser asks, how long before one of these gets weaponised?


But, writes Justin Mullins (Squishybots...), the chances are that something with a squishy body and tentacles is likely to be closer to the real future of robotics. 'For many tasks that we actually want robots to do, a hard body or humanoid shape just isn't cutting it. So researchers are rethinking the fundamentals of what a smart machine is.'

9 November 2011

'The restaurants are all full'

...said Silvio Berlusconi a few days ago, alluding to the robust health of the Italian economy. One could laugh, were it not for the knowledge that such prosperity as many Italians have recently enjoyed has depended on eating the future -- stealing from children by loading them with debt.

A footnote to this farce: it appears Italian restaurants really are full...of dead song birds.  Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, notes that a consignment recently intercepted on the way to those tables consisted of:
Eurasian Skylarks Alauda arvensis, Calandra Larks Melanocorypha calandra, Red-throated Pipits Anthus cervinus, Bluethroats Luscinia svecica, European Goldfinches Carduelis Carduelis, Fieldfares Turdus pilaris, Mistle Thrushes Turdus viscivorus, Reed Buntings Emberiza schoeniclus and White Wagtails Motacilla alba.

Monstrorum historia

Some footnotes to the my recent piece for Granta online:
In On Monsters: An Unnatural History of our Worst Fears, Stephen Asma identifies ‘slitherers’, or snake-like monsters as one of the principal types of monsters. Eels can be put in this category (along with, for example, hagfish). Others include: ‘crawlers’ (spider-type monsters), ‘collosals’ (giant creatures), ‘hybrids’ (mixed-species creatures), ‘possessors’ (spirits, specters), and parasites (infectious agents, blood suckers etc).  Stories about monster threats and heroic conquests, Asma suggests,  'provide us with a ritualized, rehearsable simulation or reality, a virtual way to represent the forces of nature, the threats from other animals, and the dangers of human social interaction.'
In the introduction to The Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges and his translator write: 'We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but...it is a necessary monster.' 
John Gray's comment appears here
I wrote that 'monsters of one kind or another are woven into virtually all the cultures of which we have record.' There may be a parallel in religion. David Hume suggested that belief in gods arose from fear of the unknown causes of the sometimes malevolent, sometimes benevolent and often unpredictable events which so frequently dominated human life. William James, by contrast, argued that a sense of transcendent joy played at least as important a role in the creation and maintenance of religious belief as fear. Certainly, a religious impulse is strong in us. ‘Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems,’ writes the psychologist Pascal Boyer; ‘by contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions.‘ The anthropologist Scott Atran agrees: ‘Spirituality looms as humankind’s provisional evolutionary destiny.‘ Or, as the novelist David Foster Wallace put it, ‘there is no such thing as not worshipping.’

I wrote 'now almost all the monsters are within us'. This is a figure of speech, but some things inside us do seem like beings with their own existence. Cancer, one of the ‘kings of terror’ can be a case in point. And as Siddhartha Mukherjee points out, cancer can sometimes seem more like a someone than a something
I should write another note about (big) cats.

4 November 2011

'Libertine bubbles'

Ain't nobody here but us Scyllarides latus larvae

Stranger and more plausible than the theory (attributed to Aristophanes in the Symposium) that sex has its origins in people chasing around trying to find the other half from which they were once severed is the libertine bubble theory of Thierry Lodé, which argues that rather than providing reproductive advantages:
it might be better to see sex as a genetic exchange between two organisms, as originating from an archaic horizontal gene transfer process among the prebiotic bubbles on the ocean surface, which are thought to have played a major role in the creation of living cells. My theory suggests sex results from three key primitive conditions: first, bubbles form spontaneously, creating a favourable environment for genetic material; second, the "promiscuous" nature of these bubbles allows transfer of genetic material among the most "libertine" of the bubbles, gradually leading to a certain membrane selectivity; and third, DNA overcrowding encourages primitive meiotic recombination.