Tuesday, May 31, 2011

From Here to Infinity by Martin Rees

From Here to Infinity is one of those misleadingly short books that look as though they are going to be slight, but in fact slyly pummel the brain into seeing sense. By the end of it I not only wanted Martin Rees to gather the world leaders into a small room to give them a good talking to, but for the man to give up his day job of Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, and take up a more important position: that of Prime Minister, since his country clearly needs him. I am not being facetious. I am serious. Any country that gives up £117 billion to bale out a few bankers, and then goes on to allow them to be paid more in bonuses than it devotes to teaching its undergraduates, or supporting university scientific research, needs to examine its priorities.

Martin Rees makes an excellent case for increased expenditure on high-risk no-end-in-sight scientific research (it has been shown to pay dividends in the long run) as a way of not only returning to prosperity but, more importantly, providing a viable world for our grandchildren.

The book is based on the Reith lectures Martin Rees gave in 2010, but updated using more information, so the figures about cuts and expenditure are up-to-date. The first part, 'The Scientific Citizen', stresses that it is important that science is understood and appreciated by everyone, because for the first time in the history of our species we are determining the future of our biosphere. The stakes are high, and so it is vital that we all understand what science has done and can do, and stresses the importance of good science communication.

In a previous book (Our Final Century) Martin Rees estimated that there is only 50% chance that the human race reaches 2100 without a major setback, and then points out that this is regarded as optimistic by many. The second section, called 'Surviving the Century', deals with the fact of global warming as demonstrated by the Keeling curve. He calls for research on clean energy to garner the same spending and credibility as the Manhattan Project. The general tone, however, is not completely pessimistic. By 2050 the population of the world may have peaked, and the developing nations could well have caught up with the developed world in terms of technology. Sadly, it is politics, which tends to put self-interest before what is best for the planet, that may ultimately scupper these possibilities. The section ends with a riveting thought experiment.

The third section discusses what is possible to predict and what is not. He then describes which discoveries in the last century have been key to shaping the modern world; and how difficult it would have been to predict. I particularly liked his hosepipe analogy to explain how extra dimensions are hidden from us. He predicts that it the next scientific breakthroughs will be in the interface between biology and engineering, and also in nanotechnology. He also believes that we will increase our understanding in fields such as the workings of the brain, aging, robotics, the origin of life and space-travel. The ways in which scientific discoveries are made might also change, with machines taking out the time-consuming process of trial and error.

'A Runaway World', the final section, considers creativity in science, and the conditions under which such creative thought flourishes. Despite the internet, enterprising individuals tend to swarm together, which can lead to a brain drain in places such as Africa. To mitigate this he suggests an alternative to aid - creating an attractive research institute in developing countries to retain talent. Places such as these in the developed world, such as Cambridge's science park in the UK, attract talent because they are perceived, thanks to various incentives, to be conducive to high risk ventures at low risk. It is in these places that great innovations happen, and therefore are the engines for long term prosperity and confronting global challenges. It is therefore vitally important that we maintain these scientific havens. The innovators that congregate in them should be given free-reign to develop their research path, and not be dogged by too many bureaucratic demands on accountability.

He finishes by pointing out the need for scientists to act as global citizens before going on to consider the lesson of Ely Cathedral. In a particularly moving passage, he says that just as the builders of Ely Cathedral knew they wouldn't live to see its completion, so we too should take on a similar altruistic attitude in our dealings with our planet. It is our only legacy, and the future of our grandchildren will be determined by how we treat it now. This is more important than politics, which is why I think we shouldn't leave a politician in charge.

From Here to Infinity is out tomorrow. Thanks to Profile books for the review copy.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

What I'm Doing: 35

What I'm listening to:

Samson by Regina Spektor (my latest obsession, having just downloaded Live in London from iTunes).

What I'm going to watch next:

Avator directed by Sam Worthington.
Having heard about this for so long, I've finally got round to hiring it off LoveFilms.

What I'm listening to on audiobooks:

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey.
It's been a long time since I last read a Peter Carey novel and I'd forgotten what a stunning writer he is. I think the chairman of the Booker judges last year said we are privileged to live at his time, and I agree.

What I'm reading next:

Fiction: Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido.

This is about children growing up in South Africa in the fifties (I think). It is gently funny. I think I'll read the rest of this author's output when I get the chance.

Non-fiction:The Silk Road by Frances Wood.

I've started this already a few months ago but got distracted. It's very interesting.

What I'm doing:
Looking forward to going to see the Taming of the Shrew at Theatr Clwyd.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Basic Meditation

I have just found a good website on basic Buddhist meditation. I don't think it will lead to anything transcendental, but it looks like a good start.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Transcendence by Norman E Rosenthal

Today I read Transcendence by Norman E Rosenthal. It describes the extraordinary usefulness of transcendental meditation (TM) and makes a good case for its adoption by everyone.

TM is one of the three different sorts of meditation and these are described in the first chapter: focused attention meditation (concentrating on an object); open monitoring meditation (concentrating on something happening but not reacting to it); and automatic self-transcending meditation(effortlessly thinking about a mantra which leads to another state of consciousness) which is the subject of the book.

The second chapter was particularly interesting. In it I learnt about something called 'The Watch'. It is only very recently, since electric lighting, that we have been able to use the hours of darkness. In the days of candles and oil lamps the light was so dim that as soon as it grew dark our ancestors used to go to sleep. In the winter, in high latitudes, this could be for fourteen hours. However studies have shown that they didn't continually sleep, but woke and spent some of the night in a state of tranquil wakefulness called 'The Watch' for a couple of hours before sleeping again. Dr. Rosenthal postulates that 'The Watch' resembles the state of transcendence in TM, and compares people's descriptions of both states. Prolactin levels rise in both. This induces serenity by making inactivity more tolerable (levels of prolactin also rise during breastfeeding and in hens that are incubating their eggs).

This state of serenity induced by TM can have important beneficial effects. For instance practising TM can actually reverse conditions such as hardening and narrowing of the arteries which can lead to coronary heart disease. Furthermore, just the process of learning how to do transcendental meditation can have lasting effect even if it is not actively practised thereafter.

As well as possibly helping to prevent diseases such as cancer and diabetes, TM helps fight mental disorders such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress, bipolar and clinical depression, addiction and ADHD. Dr.Rosenthal illustrates this using a series of very interesting case studies, convincing statistical evidence, and various scientific explanations (which includes the improvement of the 'executive functions' (the ability to prioritise, organise and control emotions) in the front temporal lobe of the brain. Side effects of TM are considered in chapter six. These are rare and relatively minor and include headaches or dizziness, insomnia and disturbing flashbacks.

As a former teacher in quite a challenging school, I found the chapter on what happened when a 'Quiet Time' was introduced into Visitacion Valley Middle School (in a deprived area of San Francisco), both very interesting and moving. The pupils weren't forced to meditate (although some of them did) but they were obliged to be quiet for twelve minutes. As a result the behaviour of the pupils improved, staff absenteeism declined and the Principal's blood pressure dropped significantly. Further studies have indicated that meditation (or even just 'Quiet Time') can improve the pupils'ability to concentrate and learn.

Prisoners are another section of the population that can benefit from practising TM. Dr. Rosenthal gives some startling startling statistics: 3% of the US population is in 'correctional supervision' - a higher proportion than in China and that 70% of those prisoner released re-offend with in three years. TM is just one of the methods that might be used to lift some offenders out of a life of crime, and Tom O'Connor of Transforming Corrections in Salem, Oregon, has shown there can be an impressive reduction in recidivism. The idea comes from the successful micro-banking initiative of Muhammad Yunus in Pakistan, where small loans enabled specific communities made a big difference to their lives.

All of these case studies are interesting and thought-provoking, but I related to the case studies of chapter 10 the most. For example, Mindy had high levels of anxiety because she felt she never accomplished enough. Eventually she had a nervous breakdown, and it was only after she had been transferred to a spa that specialised in Indian medicine that she recovered. She learnt to meditate, which she says 'gave her room to rest and be quiet'. It has also extended her creativity as an artist.

Dr Rosenthal also outlines how TM has helped successful businessmen and people in showbusiness such as Laura Stern, Martin Scorsese and Russel Brand as well as, more famously, Paul McCartney and Ringo Star. All of these people give personal accounts on what TM has meant to their lives. A common experience is that extraneous thoughts and distractions die away which leads to greater creativity.

I found this very interesting because it seemed to me to chime with what I'd previously read about Henri Poincaré's ideas on insight, and in particular his idea that it was best to relax and stop actively working on a problem in order to solve it. He too reported a feeling of elation, although, in his case, he linked this with the thrill of discovery. Having read about the advantages of TM I now like to think that as Poincaré walked or simply sat on a bus in order to overcome his 'impasse' he too was meditating, clearing a way for the 'hooked atoms' of his mind to collide and produce an exquisitely beautiful idea.

Dr. Rosenthal emphasises in the last chapter that in fact little is known about the activity in the brain during transcendence; but the harmonising effects are clear - not only the meditator's individual life, but also society in which he lives. One very interesting and novel theory ( John Hagelin's) explains the harmonising effects of TM using particle physics.

Transcendence is a convincing book, one that could easily be life-changing, and I expect many people reading this book will be left, like I was, with an overwhelming desire to learn how to practise transcendental meditation as soon as possible. Dr. Rosenthal suggests that TM is best learnt through a course from the world-wide Maharishi University- there are centres everywhere. However, since these are expensive I have decided to investigate another route. I shall let you know how I get on.

Thanks to Tarcher Penguin for the review copy.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Fishy Distractions

I bought this, having seen a recommendation on the Asylum blog:

Liked it, bored everyone I know reading excerpts from it, discovered that Henry Root (wet fish merchant) was really William Donaldson, and having read an excerpt from one of his other books was persuaded that I needed this:

which came this morning, and I am glad to report is just as hilarious as the Henry Root book, but longer...although, really, I should be reading this

which is funny too (in its own quiet way), and introduces me to the incredibly alien world of a Japan one thousand years ago.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dogsbody and Scumsters: A Collaboration

Just before I went on my little holiday Faye Dayan, of Roast Books, sent me Dogsbodies and Scumsters written by Alan McCormick and illustrated by Jonny Voss. It is a collection of two sorts of stories: Dogsbodies and Scumsters. The Dogsbodies are short stories about 'characters in the underbelly of an urban landscape' and these were my favourite. They have a beguiling simplicity which really drew me in, and I found each Dogsbody an entertaining and interesting read. The Sacred Elephant, for instance, gradually builds an uncomfortable atmosphere dealing with an unusual example of immigration and acceptance, while Real Mummy is a dark tale with an effective twist. The Scumsters are surreal short shorts inspired by the illustrations by Jonny Voss. The selection, then, is wide in both variety and style.

Half of all proceeds from the sales of this book, which is published on May 26th, are donated to InterAct Reading Service, a charity dedicated to supporting stroke recovery.

I was interested in the collaboration between the two, so I sent both Alan and Jonny a set of questions which they decided to answer together, returned to me by Alan McCormick.


Alan was recently Writer in Residence for the Stroke charity, InterAct Reading Service. His short stories have won numerous prizes and have been widely published and performed.

Jonny Voss studied illustration at Brighton University and then went on to study at the RCA. He has been working in London as an illustrator since 2000.

Alan and Jonny collaborate on illustrated shorts under the name, Scumsters (see also dogsbodiesandscumsters, 3ammagazine and deaddrunkdublin)


About Dogsbodies...

CD: How did you first meet?
AM: Jonny lived in Clapton with his girl-friend along with my future wife. I was a frequent visitor from Vauxhall on my scooter.

CD: What comes first and why- the pictures or the words?
AM: For all our short adult work like Scumsters, Jonny always does the pictures first. The exception in the book is the longer piece, 'Reasons to Swim Inside theSky', where Jonny's pictures illustrated my story. We've also written the first draft of a children's book where the words have come first.

In terms of our collaboration then its pictures first 90% of the time. It helps keep things instinctive and free - Jonny draws quickly and I react with the first thing that comes into my mind when I look at his pictures.

CD: How do you communicate? How often do you contact each other?
AM: Nearly always by email. Sometimes a few times a day, sometimes once a week or fortnight.

CD: Do you ever have disagreements? How do you settle them?
AM: We started this all off for ourselves, just to draw and write. I needed the inspiration, I like reacting to things rather then always having the weight of coming up with an original idea. So we had no expectation of how it might work out, and it's been a lot of fun.

The only time I've disagreed with Jonny is when he draws me and makes me look too fat with an overly square-shaped head. In the book (see pic) he has drawn himself as a dashing Roman God and me as a crusty-mouthed senator gazing blankly at him.

We don't really disagree because we both enjoy what the other does; I think Jonny is a completely original one-off and I'm lucky to get to work with him.

CD: How is a story enhanced by an illustration?
AM: It works best when the words and illustrations fire off each other rather than describe or repeat each other, and I think we manage that at times.

CD: What is the best feature of your collaboration?
AM: The freshness and un self-conscious way we approach it. Jonny's pictures inspire and free me to write in a way I probably couldn't otherwise do.

CD: Where do you prefer to work?
AM: We started collaborating about 5 years ago. Each morning we'd go for a walk and draw or write the first thing we saw that took our eye and then send it to each other. I lived in Vauxhall and Jonny lived near the canals in Hackney. Not only is he more visual but he found more interesting things to inspire him - old mattresses, sofas, coathangers, herons, ducks, biscuits, factory debris . .. Pretty soon we found it more productive to let the words follow the pictures. So it started from an outside thing. Nowadays, Jonny works in his studio and I write on my computer at home.

General Questions.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
AM: I used to live in a co-op in New Cross next to a biker--Sioux--Indian-follower called Happy. He started breeding snails in his garden to sell to French restaurants. They were the wrong type though, inedible apparently and they used to end up sliding down our windows or crushed and dying on our kitchen floor.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
AM: Drink. Babies, that kind of thing.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
AM: Kids; they change everything.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
AM: Working in the early 80's in a psychiatric hospital, an old crumbling small town asylum beneath the Sussex Downs. Wonderful views from in there, very sad when you got inside.

CD: What is happiness?
AM: Surprising and indescribable. I know it's been said before but I find the (western? contemporary?) obsession with happiness, as a right and an end to single-mindedly demand in our lives troubling and superficial. That some Governments are now interested in analysing and promoting happiness is worrying.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?

AM: Clear my throat and have a shower.

Monday, May 16, 2011

As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams by Lady Sarashina (translated by Ivan Morris)..

Lady Sarashina, the author of As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams, led a sad, wistful life. She married late (for a Heian woman), well into her thirties, had three children and seems to spend most of the rest of her years regretting that she had been such a dreamy, self-indulgent youth, forever hankering after 'Tales' and stories. Even for a Heian woman she seems almost pathologically shy, absconding, at the relatively advanced age of 31, from her position in court back to the parental home after just a few hours because she hated sharing her living space with new people.

She seemed to wring misery from each new event in her life; sometimes justifiably so (e.g. when her sister died in childbirth), but at other, less obviously tragic, times too . For instance, the departure of her father for another province following a promotion seemed to be particularly traumatic for them both, and they seemed to encourage each other to new levels of despondency and wretchedness, composing desolate poetry tending almost towards the mawkish. She seems far more fond of her father than the man she eventually marries, and makes little mention of this 'father of her children' except to appreciate his understanding when she wanted to make a pilgrimage out of the city during a time of great celebration (her brother warned her she would be a laughing stock, and indeed she was); and to record later that she was going through marital difficulties.

Her husband's death was foretold with an omen (when 'human-fire' could be seen leaving his body) when he set off on his final post, but Lady Sarashina ignored this just as much as she had ignored the priests appearing in her dreams telling her to learn various sutra. She spent her final years chastising herself for this too, but then she dreamt again, and this dream brought her comfort. A glowing Amida Buddha appeared to her with one arm outstretched, the other hand making magical signs (these signs were ancient, and considered to be very important). 'I am leaving now,' he said, 'but I shall return to fetch you.' So Lady Sarashina took reassurance in this new form of Amida Buddhism which required faith rather than penance for redemption. All she needed to do to reach nirvana was to call on Amida Buddha by using the 'Nembutsu formula' ('I call on thee, Amida Buddha'), and at her death Amida would come and lead her to the western paradise.

I was very glad to read that finally this woman, who sounded as if she had been living in a state of either anxiety or misery for most of her life, spent her final years relatively contented.

The call of the hototogisu

I keep reading about a bird called hototogisu in my Japanese books. The name is an onomatopoeia of its call, 'hototo'. I have found an example on Youtube:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading on the Move

I have been away in France for my son's wedding. We had a busy few days, but even so I am pleased to report that I managed to fit in a little reading.

Firstly I finished The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, (translated by Ivan Morris) while in the night I listened to Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Hard-boiled Wonderland is Murakami's best book, in my opinion (well, of the ones I've heard so far). One voice was modern and slick, concerning a man who had had his brain modified so he could 'shuffle' information quickly. This was set in modern Japan. Alternate chapters were more poetic and set in a mysterious city at 'the end of the world'. In order to enter the city, the prospective citizen has to have his shadow cut away, and this shadow (which has a personality and form of its own) is allowed to die in the harsh environment outside the city walls. As the shadow dies so too does the mind and memories of its previous owner who now lives inside the city. Each chapter is engrossing, strange and memorable (the sort of writing I love to hear again and again) and the whole book comes together beautifully. It is certainly one of the best books I've ever read, and now want to read it in print so I can muse over it some more.

The Pillow Book was set in a much older Japan, and showed a society that seemed even more strange and claustrophobic than the city in Hard Boiled Wonderland.

Sei Shonagon was a Lady-in-Waiting at the court of a Japanese Empress during the last decade of the tenth century. Her 'pillow book' is a collection of her thoughts about court life, with anecdotes about various incidents, lists of charming and distasteful things, and character appraisals and assassinations. As I read I gradually accumulated an impression of not only the lifestyle of the privileged ladies of the court, but also the character of Shonagon. She took pleasure in ridicule, her poetic successes, popularity with the Empress and numerous compliments. She seemed obsessed with clothes of both male and female, and yet seemed incredibly wary about being seen herself, and seemed to spend a lot of her time hiding behind screens and curtains. Her life seemed to be a series of assignations with various lovers (generally under the protection of darkness or, initially, from the other side of a screen or curtain. She seemed to see these lovers mainly by spying on themfrom behind curtains during staged visits.

In some ways life in the Heian court seemed like life for idle classes throughout history. She concentrated on manners, etiquette and form; and delighted in successful put-downs, pracitcal jokes and acknowledgment of her wit by those she considered to be her superior. She was also promiscuous, and yet seemed to spend many episodes of her life in a convent or in retreat. Any major event was celebrated in poetry, and the exchange of poetry seemed to be the main form of communication between men and women. Celebrations generally took the form of processions, and she was careful to list the colour schemes of clothes (many of which were dictated by station, season and bereavement).

Having finished these, I am reading As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams

by another lady-in-waiting at the Heian court, which is wistful and interesting, and listening to The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

'The Help' is absorbing. Any Murakami book is a tough act to follow, and at first I thought 'The Help', with its put-upon black domestic servant in Jacksonville, seemed a little obvious and unadventurous, but soon it caught hold of me with its little, southern-US teeth, and I can't wait to listen to some more.

In complete contrast, a couple more books were waiting for me when I got home: the utterly hilarious Henry Root Letters,

and the sumptuously illustrated DK History of Britain and Ireland.

I've dipped into both of these books, and am this already boring everyone in earshot by reading out long passages from the Henry Root book because I find them all so funny. I follow these with snippets from the History of Britain (which receive a more sympathetic hearing). For instance (from the 'History of Britain') I found out that there are things called 'broughs' in Scotland which were built in the 6th century BCE. They were part residence and part fort, and I now have the urge to go to Scotland and find one. The great thing about this 'History' book are the many photographs. They draw the eye. No doubt I have come across the 'brough' before in my reading, but it is the sort of word that doesn't really stick, and seeing a picture of one of these mysterious-looking objects entices me to the words alongside and so I find out more. I am looking forward to dipping into this a bit more very soon.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Lord of Powis Castle

At Powis Castle a peacock struts

and the forecourt is bathed in welcome but unseasonal sunshine.

Outside the castle walls great banks of yews grow as densely and as prolifically as algae

carved into glorious mounds with Rubensesque bulges,

and secret spaces

hiding another, imaginary, kingdom.

A footpath through an ancient orchard reveals another view

and then another; variegated leaves

leading onto paths with blossoming rhododendron

perfumed azaleas

and other delicate flowers.

Close to the exit, a bronze peacock

presages its living prototype

and greets Marly's approach (or maybe his harem of three peahens)

with a rattling display of feathers:

the new Lord of the Castle.

(Yesterday, Marly Youmans, David Bonta (two writers from the US) and I visited Powis Castle in mid-Wales. As you can see we had a fine time. It was great to finally meet Marly (who I first encountered on this blog), and I was delighted to be introduced to David, too.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A Writers' Weekend in Perthshire.

Guildtown and Wolfhill are near Perth in Scotland. They are aiming to become Carbon neutral,

and this was my base this weekend, as I attended a conference to find out more about global warming for a forthcoming anthology, organised by Gregory Norminton, a fellow author (on the right below),

and Mike Robinson, Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (on the left, below).

Our first evening was spent in Perth in the Society's buildings, which have recently been modernised using sustainable materials (cork and rubber on the floor for instance) and lit with an eminently appropriate lamp,

and also incorporating the twelfth century wall of a house made famous by Sir Walter Scott.

The village hall in Guildstown (where we went the next day)

has an impressive combination of renewable energy supplies: from solar photovoltaic cells on the south-facing roof

to a system which extracts the energy from under the ground of the adjacent playing field

and conveys it to the roof space of the hall for conversion into hot water and heating.

Jack and authors Tom Bullough and Maria McCann (in red jacket) investigating the plumbing in the roof space.
A local resident, Jack, who also happens to be an engineer

explained how the choice of system is crucial. Although the system of photovoltaics and underground heat has proved to be economic, an expensive wind generator on the hard courts

has not.

From outside the village hall

Wayne, Kenny, authors James Miller and Tom Bullough in sunglasses, Gregory, Maria, Jack, Gail and Davie.
we went to the garden of the local primary school, where a local artist, Wayne,

is in the process of engaging the children in various recycling schemes including building a greenhouse from interlocking recycled plastic bottles

and producing yard games.

Meanwhile, artist and writer, Nick Hayes, joined Mike in a cartooning session with local children at the hall.

Nick Hayes (in green T-shirt) supervising cartooning session.

The hall was also the venue for a ceilidh

complete with band (and young listener) - which I think we all enjoyed very much, and I think certainly matched aerobics for aerobic activity.

The next day there were more briefings, this time in the Wolfhill Village Hall, with Richard, the CEO of the Scottish WWF and Rachel who heads a community carbon neutral group in Sterling on their ideas for the future

followed by a stroll

back through the lush countryside to the village.

It was a fascinating weekend, thanks to the great food and the warm welcome from the inhabitants of Guildtown - especially Ken and Eleanor (pictured below) who were kind enough to put me up in their very pretty cottage. We had some great conversations. Thank you both so much!

Ken, Rachel, Gail and Eleanor.