Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Journey To Meet Your Power Animal

I'm beginning to think the Network Cornwall mailing list needs its own blog. Today's choice offering:

Shamanic Sounds Workshop

Journey to meet your power animal. Experience the power of healing sound with drum, voice and rattle and learn Mongolian Overtone Singing.

A one day workshop teaching the basics of Shamanic Journeying and some powerful sound healing techniques.

With warmest wishes and Happy 2009

V** S****
Voice Facilitator/ Sound Healer/ Shamanic Healer/ Reiki Master-Teacher/ Shiatsu Practitioner

Normal service will be resumed just as soon as I can think of something to blog about. Twitter chums will already have an inkling of the depths to which I am about to sink...

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Contracting World Atmosphere

More from the Network Cornwall mailing list. I'm at a loss to understand what's being recommended here, unless it's some sort of belly button fluff alchemy:

"Releasing, revealing and restorative - just had the first of a few sessions with M****** D***** at Marazion (magic mix of therapies). Priceless and expansive! I was very tempted not to indulge in this, given the apparently contracting world atmosphere. But the dross that turned into gold by putting myself and body on the receiving end means it's already paid for itself."

In other news, my stats tell me that someone who works for DaimlerChrysler has been researching machine guns on the internet. I wonder if they're planning bloody revenge for this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I Don't Think You Can Buy Stardust In Tesco's

One of the many things the Blue Kitten was given for Christmas was this lovely seasonal sleepsuit, bearing the legend 'Little Pudding Recipe':

Look a little closer, however, and it becomes clear that this so-called 'recipe' is deeply deficient:

To be specific, it reads as follows:

A sprinkle of sugar
A spoonful of stardust
And lots and lots of love

This is optimistically illustrated with a picture of a Christmas pudding.

I don't think you have to be Delia Smith to recognise that combining these four ingredients is not going to result in anything resembling a Christmas pudding.

At best, and I feel that the end result will depend very heavily on your interpretation of 'stardust', you might end up with a slightly gritty pancake.

Alternatively, you might end up with a slightly gritty omelette, depending on how many eggs you choose to use. The recipe itself is quite vague on the subject, but the accompanying illustration suggests that there should be two, and moreover that they should have smiling faces and be wielding spoons.

I am not sure what to make of this. Should we infer that the eggs are to be actively involved somehow in preparing the pudding? Are they to be persuaded to collude unwittingly - even cheerfully - in their own gastronomical demise, like Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb in the castle of Harfang?

Should the eggs be made to beat themselves?

There's no real way of telling, because the recipe is unhelpfully tight-lipped on the actual preparation method. But a trembling finger of suspicion must be pointed in the direction of the sinister character at top left, whose broad smile and jolly demeanour may well have lured the hapless, trusting eggs to their imminent and untimely demise.

Fortunately, the Blue Kitten remains blissfully unaware of this grotesque subtext, and contents herself with sucking on the sleepsuit's stripy sleeve and dribbling liberally down its front. The time for her edification in the twin disciplines of cookery and battling evil will come, but not yet.

IN OTHER NEWS: I woke up this morning to learn that I'd been canonised during the night. It had to happen sometime.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Coffee And The Connected History Of Everything

Everything I've been reading recently seems to be weirdly connected, which either means that some enormous underlying pattern is about to reveal itself to me, like when Jodie Foster lays out all those pieces of paper on the floor in Contact, or that I'm going nuts, like when Russell Crowe starts circling random things in the newspaper in A Beautiful Mind.

Or it could just be because I've started drinking coffee again after a whole year's abstinence. Possibly-not-coincidentally, coffee seems to be the major connecting theme running through all this reading material. So before I get hauled off by aliens or men in white coats, here's a sampling of the Amazingly Connected Things I've Read Recently:

1. An article from the Boston Globe about how living in the city rots your brain (via Extemporanea). Apparently city life not only erodes your ability to concentrate, but also your ability to resist temptation. This is apparently why people who live in cities drink more coffee, which is apparently why people who live in cities come up with more innovative ideas than people who live in the countryside, even though their brains are more fried.

(Some or all of this may help to explain the sheer rubbishness of most of the ideas conceived during the dotcom boom.)

2. The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson, which readers of my last post will recall makes a lot of the fact that people drinking coffee in cities in the 18th century led directly to the massive efflorescence of new ideas that we now call the Enlightenment. Johnson in turn got this idea from Tom Standage's book A History Of The World in Six Glasses, which is next on my reading list.

3. An article in One magazine by my good chum Andrew B. Smith about George Orwell's antipathy towards the so-called Machine Age, which quotes Orwell putting the boot (not the one that stamps on a human face forever; a different boot) into the coffee-shops of the 1940s. Orwell was having none of this flowering-of-innovative-ideas nonsense; he thought that the function of coffee-shops in society was to *prevent* people from thinking, by numbing their brains with constant muzak:

"The music - and if possible it should be the same music for everybody - is the most important ingredient. Its function is to prevent thought and conversation, and to shut out any natural sound, such as the song of birds or the whistling of the wind, that might otherwise intrude."

Orwell's misguided pessimism about the effect of coffee-shops and piped music on people's ability to think was shared by a bunch of contemporaries including Richard Hoggart and Theodor Adorno, but I haven't been reading them recently, so they don't count for this list. But that last bit about shutting out the sounds of nature tallies very nicely with:

4. An enormous article about the financial crisis from Prospect magazine that BiB mentioned in the comments of the Wedgwood post. In it, Robert Skidelsky points out that *even* J.M. Keynes, the 'father of modern theoretical macroeconomics', liked to hear the birdies singing sometimes:

"We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the unappropriated splendours of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and stars because they do not pay a dividend."

Fortunately the National Trust later seized upon this missed opportunity and started charging people to look at trees and flowers. But this is going off the point, which is that everything I've been reading has had stuff to say about the function of coffee-shops in society, including the book I'm currently reading, which is:

5. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, which is all about how cities function as living organisms and why city planners usually get it completely wrong. It's a brilliant book and fascinating reading for anyone who lives or has lived in a big city.

Jacobs has opinions about coffee-shops as well, but they're eminently pragmatic - none of Orwell's cultural pessimism or Johnson's hipster intellectualism for her. For Jacobs, coffee-shops play a vital role in city life simply because they provide a place where people can mingle with other people without anyone's need for privacy being compromised.

(She also nicely puts the boot into Le Corbusier, dryly mocking his vision of a 'Radiant City' of soaring skyscrapers, a vision which degenerated pretty quickly into the faceless concrete high-rises of so many miserable postwar housing estates. For another great example of Le Corbusier having the boot put into him, see the character of Otto Silenus in Evelyn Waugh's 'Decline and Fall', but I'm wandering off the point again now.)

And with that, as though pre-ordained in some kind of grand cosmic plan, my copy of A History of the World in Six Glasses has just arrived. I must immediately go and circle the bits that are clearly trying to send me a message, like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.

Or maybe I'll just have another latte.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Invention Of Air

It's been a good couple of weeks for 18th-century British luminaries. While the collapse of Waterford Wedgwood on Monday provoked a flurry of media articles about its illustrious founder Josiah Wedgwood, the publication of Steven Johnson's new book, The Invention of Air, has simultaneously thrust another Enlightenment figure, Joseph Priestley, into the limelight.

Like Wedgwood, Priestley was a core member of the Lunar Society, a small group of Midlands-based industrialists, intellectuals and 'natural philosophers' (the 18th century term for scientists), who used to meet at each full moon to discuss the experiments and inventions they were working on.

(There was nothing sinister about the timing of these meetings: in the days before street lighting, the full moon simply made it easier for the Society's members to find their way home in the early hours of the morning.)

None of the Lunar Society's members were professional scientists; in the late 1700s there was no such thing. 'Natural philosophy' was a fashionable hobby for anyone who had sufficient money, free time and intellectual curiosity to dedicate to it. Neither were their scientific experiments particularly rigorous, at least not compared with the way scientific research is conducted today. Experimentation was largely driven by an enthusiasm for creating unusual effects, rather than for patiently testing and refining theories.

As a result, experiments were often more showmanship than science. The painting that Chuffy! mentioned in the comments of my Wedgwood post depicts a natural philosopher 'performing' an experiment in which a bird in a jar is observed to fall unconscious when the air around it is sucked out with a pump. Similarly showy experiments demonstrating the strange and recently-discovered properties of electricity were also very popular.

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768

The above painting slightly pre-dates Joseph Priestley's experiments on air, but it's easy to imagine Priestley in the role of Wright's natural philosopher.

Priestley performed hundreds of experiments involving air and the absence of it, using a succession of unfortunate mice to observe how long an animal could survive in conditions such as a sealed jar; a sealed jar with the air sucked out of it; a sealed jar with a mint plant growing in it; and, most famously, a sealed jar filled with a gas Priestley had created from burning mercury calx, in which a mouse miraculously survived for half an hour or more.

Despite the fact that these experiments earned Priestley the Copley Medal, the equivalent in its day of Nobel Prize, Priestley was barely aware of what he'd discovered. He thought he had created air that was free of 'phlogiston', a gas that medieval scientists believed was released by burning substances and which, when absorbed to saturation point by the surrounding air, caused fires to go out. Even though the phlogiston theory was already obsolescent in Priestley's time, he continued to believe in it, preventing him from seeing that what he had actually done was to create pure oxygen.

One of the many themes of Johnson's book is to question the 'Great Man' approach to history by showing that Priestley, in isolation, was in fact quite a rubbish scientist. He performed hugely important experiments and made hugely important discoveries, but consistently failed to apprehend their meaning. If Priestley had been operating in an intellectual vacuum, his contribution to scientific progress might have been negligible.

Fortunately, what he did very well was to share the information about his experiments with anyone who was interested. When Priestley discovered that, contrary to expectations, a mint plant not only flourished happily in a sealed jar but also allowed a mouse sealed in the same jar to stay alive for a surprisingly long time, it was his chum Benjamin Franklin who realised that Priestley had stumbled upon something of fundamental importance to the way our planet works:

"That the vegetable creation should restore the air which is spoiled by the animal part of it looks like a rational system, and seems to be of a piece with the rest."
Franklin glimpsed in the experiment something that Priestley couldn't see: that plants and animals need each other to survive, not just in tiny microcosmic environments like Priestley's sealed jar, but also on a planetary scale. If he'd thought about it any more, Franklin might have anticipated ecosystem theory by about two hundred years, but he was too bound up with the revolutionary politics of the nascent United States to devote much time to thinking about Priestley's mint experiments.

The fact that both Franklin and Priestley were as active politically as they were scientifically gives Johnson's book its major theme: how the interconnectedness of different disciplines (science, business, religion, politics) in the 18th century fuelled an explosion in scientific discovery, political progress and cultural advancement. Whereas today, scientists are scientists, politicians are politicians, captains of industry are captains of industry and religious leaders are religious leaders, during the Enlightenment it was eminently possible to be all of these things simultaneously - with each discipline informing and illuminating the others.

The free flow of ideas between disciplines is one of the reasons for the sudden flowering of science and culture in the late 18th century. In his book, Johnson also argues for the significance of geographical location, both at the micro scale (in the late 18th century, intellectuals from different walks of life congregated in the coffee-house opposite St Paul's cathedral, excitedly discussing their ideas while hopped up on this new imported brew) and the macro one (Johnson makes a lot of the fact that the Lunar Society was based adjacent to the coalfields of the north of England; the great store of energy laid down in the carboniferous era - thanks to the very process of photosynthesis that Priestley and Franklin had glimpsed - fuelling intellectual progress as well as the furnaces and engines of the world's first factories.)

Information flows, patterns repeating at different scales and the importance of geographical location are all classic Steven Johnson themes and are presented very well and very entertainingly in The Invention of Air. Which is just as well, because as a biography it's not great: Johnson seems far more interested in what Priestley symbolised than what Priestley was actually like. But perhaps this is deliberate - after all, Johnson doesn't subscribe to the Great Man view of history, preferring to see progress as a collaborative and often accidental process that owes more to information exchange and quirks of geography than to individual genius.

(Which incidentally makes a nonsense of the first two endorsements on the back cover of the book, praising Johnson for presenting Priestley as ' of the most fascinating personalities of his era' and as 'a new American hero'.)

It's a view that resonates well today: one of the things I like very much about Twitter, for example, is that you get intellectuals from different disciplines - including Steven Johnson himself - discussing their thoughts and ideas in a public forum where anyone can follow and contribute to the conversation, like an Information Age version of the London coffee-house.

Whether Twitter will give rise to a new Enlightenment remains to be seen, but one of the messages of this book is that the oxygen of information exchange can cause important ideas to grow and flourish, resulting in bursts of progress that change the world for the better. And I like that thought very much.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sad Light

Seen today on the Network Cornwall mailing list, which is proving to be a rich seam of unintentional comedy:

We have the answer to this SAD problem: we have a "SAD LIGHT" and the facility for you to sit by it for half an hour at a minimal cost of only £5.

UPDATE: Fortunately the 'facility' has an altogether different temperament:

(Image found on AfinShou's Flickr stream)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Great Blogger Book Deal Handicap 2009




Annie Rhiannon, To The Left Of The Midwest, picaresque account of travel through interregnum United States, 4-1

Christopher Campbell-Howes, Thirty-Six Steps To Vienna, picaresque account of travel to Vienna to pay homage at the grave of Beethoven, 5-2

Robert Self-Pierson, Moonwalking: Discovering Britain By Full-Moon, picaresque account of travel through Britain under a full moon, 6-1

James Henry, The Curious Cabinet, children's fantasy novel, 8-1

Geoff, Contains Mild Beryl, acerbic comic poetry, 9-1

Great She Elephant, The Trouble With Toyboys, a work of what I'm reliably informed is termed 'women's commercial fiction', 6-8

Tim Footman, as yet untitled biography of Leonard Cohen, 3-1

Hannah Blonde, Blonde Moments, 'Sex and the City meets This Life', 8-5

NEW ENTRY Dave East, My Dear Sally, second edition of definitive biography of female Methodist preacher Sarah Mallet, 7-4 on

Patroclus, The Pictish Trial, pop-academic rebuttal of Dr Richard Cox's 'Language of the Ogham Inscriptions of Scotland', 100-1

Which of our redoubtable bloggers will follow Bête de Jour's early lead and score a book deal this year? Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, and let the great Blogger Book Deal Handicap 2009 commence!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Wedgwood RIP

I was sad to read this morning that the china firm Wedgwood (now Waterford Wedgwood) has gone bust, the latest victim of the credit crunch and its attendant woes.

For anyone given to taking an eschatological view of the current financial crisis, the demise of Wedgwood must seem particularly symbolic. After all, the Wedgwood company pretty much heralded the dawn of capitalism. Its foundation in 1759 ushered in the Industrial Revolution and its founder, Josiah Wedgwood, invented many of the techniques of industrial manufacturing and business management that are still used today.

Many of the problems faced by Wedgwood in the 18th century will still seem painfully familiar to 21st century business owners. Here's Josiah, for example, wondering in 1771 why his booming company hasn't got more cash in the bank:

"How do you think, my dear Friend, it happens that I am so very poor, or at least so very needy, as I am at the present time, when it appears by my accounts that I clear enough money by the business to do allmost anything with."

(It turned out the problem was that Wedgwood had no idea how much each of his products cost to make, with the result that he was charging too little for his fancy vases and tableware. As a result, he invented cost accounting, the practice of pricing things according to the cost of the labour and materials that go into producing them.)

I'm a big fan of Josiah Wedgwood, not because of his accounting expertise or because he helped to develop an economic model that benefits the few at the expense of the masses, but because he was an artisan first and a businessman second. If he was around today, he wouldn't be one of those talentless middle-managerial types who have to take an MBA to justify their existence. Wedgwood was a master potter in his own right, as is evident from this account of the opening day in 1769 of his brand new factory in Staffordshire, named Etruria:

'On the slopes behind the factory a great feast was laid out on trestle tables in the shade of the trees. The factory was nearly finished, covering seven acres of land, bounded by walls except on the canal. Land was marked out for Wedgwood's own house - Etruria Hall - and a village was being built for the workmen with houses for two dozen (and eventually two hundred) families. In the sunshine, surrounded by Wedgwood relations and old friends such as the Whieldons and the Brindleys, Wedgwood put on his 'slops', the old potter's smock. Sitting down at the wheel he threw six perfect copies of a black Etruscan vase, while [Wedgwood's business partner Thomas] Bentley turned the crank.'

Here's a picture of one of those 'first day' vases that Wedgwood casually threw that day on the lawn. Not bad, eh?

Image courtesy of Michael Shanks at Stanford University

In today's BBC news article about Wedgwood's demise, Robert Peston says that 'Waterford Wedgwood's collapse is a resonant event, that speaks of a noxious global squeeze on consumer spending. Almost everything that it manufactures is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have. And most of us are thinking twice about shelling out on nice-to-haves.'

I can't help but think Josiah himself would have found this kind of problem trifling. He was always finding ways to market his pottery and fund new ventures, churning out tonnes of cheaply-priced everyday tableware in order to raise cash to finance the development and production of his more exotic, luxury wares. He was also very good at identifying and seizing market opportunities. Jenny Uglow notes in her multi-biographical work The Lunar Men that 'when Wedgwood heard of the new craze for women bleaching their hands with arsenic in 1772, he promoted his sale of black basalt teapots to make a good contrast at the table.'*

It's thanks to Jenny Uglow's book - from which come all the quotes in this post - that I know anything about Wedgwood at all, and I highly recommend it to everyone. It focuses on the industrialists, engineers and thinkers who made up the 'Lunar Society', a group of proto-scientists who congregated in Birmingham in the latter part of the 18th century, and who together laid the foundations for modern British science, industry and innovation. It's an epic and fascinating read which brings the likes of Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Joseph Priestley - and their experiments, inventions and enthusiasms - vividly and brilliantly to life.

It's also because of the depth and brilliance of The Lunar Men that I'm finding Steven Johnson's new book about Joseph Priestley, The Invention of Air, rather unsatisfying, but that's a post for another time. For the moment, I'll just mourn the passing of one of Britain's oldest companies, and wonder if it means that capitalism has indeed come full circle. And if so, what's next?

* Women: doing idiotic and dangerous things in the name of beauty since time immemorial.