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photography and film – facts, ideas, values


Darwin and Wallace’s papers were presented to the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858. Neither attended.

The Guardian’s contribution to the anniversary.  My eye was caught by the  panel at the top left bylined Teflon Charlie.  There are a few interesting blog posts by Adam Rutherford.

In a TimesOnline promo-interview for Dawkin’s new Channel 4 Series, Dawkins on Darwin, Dawkins says:

“There’s a very important misunderstanding of the relationship between Hitler and Darwin, which is relevant to this,” ….. “A lot of people think that Hitler sort of was a Darwinian, which he absolutely wasn’t. What Hitler did was to take the principle of domestic breeding of animals and apply it to humans. What Darwin did was to take the principle of the domestic breeding of animals and apply it to nature. It’s all done by nature…[].”

which made me think yet again of section 2 of a short 1997 paper by Allison Barnes and Paul Thagard, Empathy and Analogy, dealing with Analogy as a cognitive process. To explain what they mean, they use Darwin’s use of analogy in The Origin of Species, as an example.

Just as artificial selection by breeders using the natural variability of organisms explains how new breeds of plants and animals can arise, so variability and natural selection explain how new species arise.

The analogical comparison in this example involves more than seeing the correspondences between attributes such as develop and relations such as selects. The explanatory power of the analogy derives from the correspondence between the high-level causal relations: just as human selection of traits causes new breeds to develop, so natural selection of traits causes new species to develop. In this example, natural selection is the target analog which needs to be understood and developed, while artificial selection is the source analog that is intended to further explanation and problem solving.

A lot of people might react to the Dawkin’s Hitler point by saying we are animals.

The clarity of the explanation of analogy in the paper could be used by Dawkins.

The Rhetorical Structure of Darwin’s Origin of Species


John Angus Campbell

The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online

Dawkins ( Why Darwin Matters, Guardian, 9 February 2008 ) :

….natural selection is all about differential survival within species, not between them.

July 27, 2008 Posted by | analogy, argument by analogy, Darwin, evolution, evolutionary biology, science | , , , | Leave a comment

Is Google Making Us Stupid: Part II

For years we have been reading humorous anecdotes by journalists, and even quite famous writers, about what a surf can throw up and how amusing and irritating it is, usually along the the lines of: “I looked up A and ended up with X, Y, and Z.  Though I had not intended to learn about X,Y, or Z, it filled in a few gaps in my knowledge,  gave me a laugh, meanwhile wasting time I should have been spending on B,C or D.” A variant of this being, “I learnt R,T and U which were all useless information I would have been happier not knowing.”

I find rather than reading the news or looking for erudite essays, the first thing I do on booting-up in the morning is look up some word or other I am not sure of the meaning of. These tend to accumulate on scraps of paper, old envelopes or in my usual A4 loose leaf pads, mostly along the margins of something else I am writing. This sort of Google (used as a generic) is a classic displacement activity of the digital age, though clearly easily to justify if the need ever arose to do so.

Two things became clear as I began to open web pages this time. (1) I had no real idea whether it would lead to anything beyond clearing up the meanings of a few words. (2) But I felt quite confident something useful or important might turn up: it had in the past, so it would again. If you are looking up a word, don’t type it into a dictionary, whatever you do, or else the whole process will be over far too quickly. Best straight into Google  which usually turns up a page with the word in a phrase of sentence, a context, but not necessarily an explanation before a dictionary entry.

From there it is only a short hop to something miles away from the meanings of six words, but which can and often does (as millions of surfers have discovered before me) turn up something you feel might justified the time spent searching.  I am not going to attempt to go into the guilt and anxiety that may suddenly  pop to the forefront of one’s mind as the books one is currently reading glower from the desk as one surfs.

The details of surfs I take are rarely recorded apart from bookmarking a few web pages that stand out, (leave aside the history in the browser because it is does not link any of the pages viewed with each other). There was a time a few years back when I made regular on-the-spot paper flow-charts of daily activity. This was partly because it seemed the easiest and most efficient way to check back on what you had done (bookmarking often means things, themes, idea flows, get lost, separated, in the indexing process) but it was also done to study over time one’s mental preferences and style of searching. Such a flow-chart is not a lot different from listing books read on a topic and notes on general points or reminders as to which pages to go back to and why.

Today, half way through a surf starting with looking for six word meanings, the whole process petered out in under half and hour. (Was it because I had too much stuff to deal with? Or a natural ending point to that line of thought? Was it because I had found something to work on?)  I read something on a web page which gave me something of an answer to a question I hadn’t asked but must have been there in the back of my mind as I thought about this Google making you stupid business.

The six words to be checked were from a novel I have recently started. Number one was greaves.  Fascinating, but not something I wanted to delve into in great detail. The photo of the Greek bronze greves was unexpected and gave great pleasure. I  was temporarily sidetracked into thinking about the nature of art, and how, if these bronze greves were to be given pride of place in a present day art exhibition, with few realising they had functional origins and history,  an idiot would be popping up claiming something new for art with them.  Something to write about a t greater length perhaps, I thought (but not now). Urinals came to mind:  I had to resist strongly the temptation to remind myself who the artist was. Seeing in my mind’s-eye Magritte’s

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

I realised it was, rather, Duchamps.

The second word: glory-hole.  There were four definitions, one being to do with exposed mine workings, another a term used, apparently, in the porn industry.  Since the ‘author’ of these words in the novel I was reading was a Victorian character, at least the hole in the toilet wall could be eliminated.  Note: there is no link to glory-hole here. This is deliberate. Just when you expect a handy link to make things easy for you , there isn’t one.  After all if you are anti-surfing and pro-books,  but are getting involved in this debate, then you won’t mind reading this post right through to the end.

The third word was prie-dieu. I had guessed what it meant correctly: Prie-dieu

The next word was phalanstery. Never heard of it. No etymological clues I could throw together, but the after reading about it I wondered why phalanx hadn’t occurred to me.  Phalanstery,  I learn, was some idea of Fourier’s.  I  scan down the page and stop at Fourier’s views on on children, which any parent will recognise.  And it is funny, though I guess not intentionally. It appears he took himself very seriously. One of the references at the bottom was to some source material in The History Guide. Thought it wise to check if the wiki entry on Fourier’s views on children was accurate. It was (or rather finding the exact wording twice encourages one to think it might be attributable to the author concerned…)

The dominant tastes in all children are:

1. Rummaging or inclination to handle everything, examine everything, look through everything, to constantly change occupations;
2. Industrial commotion, taste for noisy occupations;
3. Aping or imitative mania.
4. Industrial miniature, a taste for miniature workshops.
5. Progressive attraction of the weak toward the strong.

There were two more words, cupola (why did I not remember architecture? Because of the way the word was used in the book, of course…) and possest.   The first page of the Google listing had ‘Mummy possest’ from a John Donne Poem, and then at At the top of the second page a rather interesting site turns up: Emily Dickenson’s Lexicon.  I can now reveal I am reading A S Byatt’s Possessed.

Though something I could see I would return to, the lexicon was not as immediately interesting to me as  The History Guide.  I sampled the link Lectures on Modern European intellectual history, which gave: Lecture 21 -The Utopian Socialists: Charles Fourier (1).

A few paragraphs into Lecture 21, I felt I had something.  I did not feel any need to go on searching, link after link.  After a moment of excitement and then some time to think, I dutifully read the rest of the lecture which told me a lot I didn’t know. I resisted the temptation to open any links on the page.

The post had been started to detail a personal surf to illustrate how the natural history of ‘ a Google’ could lead to something serious and sustained.  Some comments on the web about  Carr along the lines of “Its the surfer (who is) stupid!”, are certainly more succinct than my  post. But it is long and tortuous for a reason.

The  success of Web searches of course do depend on the person doing it. Or the attitude taken at the time of the surf.  Yet here was someone obviously highly intelligent, Nicholas Carr, decrying the process he seemed forced into adopting: while admiring it for helping him with his research, he also hated it because it so frequently tipped him into skimming mode and out of reading in a concentrated fashion.  Behind it had been the argument that concentrated reading was no longer (less) possible with the internet around: no one settled to anything nowadays. Was the brain changing to reflect the means available? The irresistible urge to check the next horizon (because it was so easy to do….no need to take that book back to the library tomorrow and get  another one), just in case there was something more interesting, more important, funnier, led one to skimp over pages of text, in a way that didn’t happen with book reading.

Just in case I am getting carried away here with what I think Carr wrote, here is another summary of his position at  NPR.  The main points being:

(1) ….Carr argues, when we give in to the natural impulses to click and skim, rather than to read and think, the Internet may actually doing us a disservice: It shortens our attention spans and even inhibits our ability to read longer books and articles.

(2) Carr says it’s not just about people scanning and jumping around very quickly. He says that the Internet is actually beginning to change the way we think. “It makes it harder even when we’re offline to read books, as skimming takes over and displaces our modes of reading,” he says.

It’s not just Google Carr is talking about, but rather the structure and nature of the whole Internet. But he says that Google is very much the dominant player, and it both governs and symbolizes the way information is structured. “The way we gather information is by jumping around,” he says, “and that’s governed not only by Google but by the whole economic structure of the Internet.”

Just as the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press helped to make reading universal, in the process ushering in enormous social revolutions, Carr says the Internet is producing a revolution of its own that is once again changing how we structure everything. While much of the revolution is positive, Carr says, he thinks that we should be aware that there might be some casualties, including prolonged reading and time for contemplation.

Carr tries to find time for more of what he calls deep reading, but he says that many of his friends are also facing difficulties in fighting Internet-influenced attention deficit disorder. In the article, he quotes one friend of his who told him: “I can’t read War and Peace anymore. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

Perhaps it might be instructive to put here Steve C. Scheer’s essay The Art of Reading.

I frequently beg to differ on surfing doing something to reading and being something inferior to book reading: it is possible to trip lightly over many pages a book or a research paper too, despite Steve’s strictures.  This  skipping might be because one feels one knows – more or less — what is before one’s eyes as much as because one can’t concentrate. If, after having sped-read a book,  or much of it, one changes one’s mind and feels a more thorough reading is necessary, one can do so, surely? Traditionally  a novel is read from cover to cover because it is a story and we are playing the author’s game. (Go back at this point to some of The Electronic Labyrinth’s pages perhaps, because it is a hypertext itself, from here.) With non-fiction we are  not obliged to digest every word. In a way  we can and often do treat a book we are studying quite like a hypertext, reading, skimming, reading, skimming, turning to the index, reading elsewhere, going back to where we left off. Perhaps eventually, because we think it is significant, going back to read it more thoroughly.

I think, rather than the Web being some sort of artificial and worse way of reading and thinking than paper texts, it is closer to how the mind works. Books are the anomaly. You may come away from reading the labyrinth that is The Electronic Labyrinth thinking that the opposite is true: I doubt it.

So what was it in Lecture 21 that took my fancy?  It was a reminder of the views of the Romantics and the philosophes and wondering how they would view the internet.  Would Wordsworth be concurring with Nicholas Carr?  Would Diderot be moaning about reliability and scholarship sensu Wikipedia? Who would relish it and who would  be appalled by it sucking the time of them and away from serious sustained reading and thing?

This particular surf of mine will have been like no one else’s.  Anyone reading this will see they might have take a different route starting from my to be looked up words. Others of a more disciplined nature may have stopped at the definitions, or gone on but completely bypassed Fourier because they knew all about him or through lack of interest.

Reading briefly about him turned up something interesting and stimulating to me: thinking about who would be claiming this process, surfing the web, the Romantics or the philosophes?  Maybe I’ll attempt as essay on it, or at least another post. I should really be getting back to my novel.

July 24, 2008 Posted by | Google, Internet, reading | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Wood on How Fiction Works

James Wood article: A Life of their own

From Jane Eyre to Jean Brodie, David Copperfield to David Brent, whether solidly realised or lightly sketched, fictional figures can be as vivid to us as real people. But just what, exactly, is a character, asks James Wood

Guardian 26 January 2008

Reviews of :

Frank Kermode’s The New Republic review

Peter Conrad Guardian 17 February 2008

D J Taylor The Independent 3 February 2008

Gideon Lewis-Kraus Los Angeles Times 20 July 2008

Mark Thwaite Ready Steady Book blog 12 March 2008

Wisdom of the West blog

He does it chapter by chapter and there is a lot of it.

July 21, 2008 Posted by | criticism, fiction, Literature, narratology, Novel, Novelist, Writing | | Leave a comment

Screenplay: Chinatown [1977]

Screenplays for you includes Robert Towne’s Chinatown.

As when scripts were put up in Moleskine Modality, note it is not clear from the site whether these are the originals or transcribed from movies.

I came here from a comment Townes made (sorry, can’t find it again, just a few scribbled notes) about  the symbolism of the title. One of the nubs being about how J.J. ( Jake) Giddes (Jack Nicholson) doesn’t ever know whether he is helping or hindering a situation.

In the wiki:Chinatown, it says “Chinatown can symbolically mean here an alien place beyond J.J. Giddes understanding or control.”

July 20, 2008 Posted by | film [its techniques], screenplay | , , | 1 Comment

Wood on Chekhov

What Chekhov Meant by Life by James Wood

Catching up on some of the newest links in 3 Quarks, saw mention of Wood’s essay in

Nobody’s a CriticOr they’re at least terrified to be one.

The Wood was not linked to but luckily the title came up in a Google.

July 18, 2008 Posted by | art, criticism, fiction, Literature, Writing | , , , | Leave a comment

Benjamin: 1940 Survey of French Literature

Completed in Paris six months before his death, Walter Benjamin’s final report to Max Horkheimer on the literary situation in France is published here for the first time in English. It was the third ‘literature letter’ that Benjamin had drafted for the Institute for Social Research in New York; the earlier two (3 November 1937, 24 January 1939) can be found in the Gesammelte Briefe. Almost twice as long as these, the Survey of 23 March 1940—Hitler’s troops would take Holland six weeks later—was composed during the same months as ‘On the Concept of History’. Benjamin’s personal situation was precarious: his health had not recovered from his internment as an enemy alien in Autumn 1939; back in his tiny Paris apartment, he worked in bed because of the cold.

Walter Benjamin : 1940 Survey of French Literature

July 15, 2008 Posted by | French literature, Literature, Novelist | Leave a comment

Thinking of my amygdala makes the amygdala light up

The title is my little joke. This type of stuff is everywhere nowadays, so these to are just two examples.

3 Quarks has today, ( 17 July 08 ) linked to a very good, and I consider, important essay in The New Atlantis, The Limits of Neuro-Talk*, by Matthew B. Crawford — a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and a contributing editor of The New Atlantis — which perhaps ought to to go out with every report of a new attempt to localise cognitive functioning by scanning the brain. Make a cup of tea or coffee, and settle down to absorb this. The writers amongst you who might have been toying with the idea of doing a satire on this type of thing, note there is already company called NoLieMRI:

” No Lie MRI, Inc. provides unbiased methods for the detection of deception and other information stored in the brain.

The technology used by No Lie MRI represents the first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history!

No Lie MRI uses techniques that:

  • Bypass conscious cognitive processing
  • Measure the activity of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) rather than the peripheral nervous system (as polygraph testing does).”
  • (1) My Amygdala, My Self,  Jeffrey Goldberg,  Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008

    Intrigued (and alarmed) by the new science of “neuromarketing,” our correspondent peers into his own brain via an MRI machine and learns what he really thinks about Jimmy Carter, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bruce Springsteen, and Edie Falco.

    “[…] dorso-lateral prefrontal-cortex activity means … trying to inhibit your automatic responses.”

    Which is what happened when I saw a picture of my wife. This had me concerned, but Iacoboni explained: “The dorso-lateral prefrontal-cortex activity means you’re trying to exercise cognitive control, that you’re trying to protect the privacy of your relationship with your wife. I interpret this positively because there’s also medial orbito-frontal cortex activity, which is a region associated with positive emotion.” Iacoboni could not explain one other response to my wife’s photograph: “You have weird auditory-cortex activity, almost like you’re hearing her voice, even though we just showed you her picture without sound.” When I told my wife about this, she asked me how it could be that I hear her when she’s not speaking, but don’t hear her when she is speaking. I said that this was a question well beyond the capacity of neuroscience to answer.

    (2) Passive learning imprints on the brain just like active learning

    This too, is an fMRI* study. Here a short report on the research in Physorg.

    It is quite instructive to go back to the old fashioned type of psychology experiment relying on subjective report such as psychological studies on ironic effects, for example Daniel M. Wegner’s Ironic Processing Theory.  A page of Wegner‘s which has a list of pdf format papers on this subject  here.  One of his well-know papers is the short, data-free Seeds of Our Undoing.  People who scribble: note the last para.

    July 8, 2008 Posted by | human nature, neuroscience, psychology, science | , , , , | Leave a comment

    Saul Bellow quote

    A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep

    Saul Bellow

    July 3, 2008 Posted by | general | , , , | Leave a comment