Come, let us compare translations

Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature. Her book on Chernobyl (subtitled in the first translation ‘The oral history of a nuclear disaster’) has a 2005 translation and a 2016 translation. Here are two excerpts:

Voices from Chernobyl (2005, translation by Kieth Gessen):

“I was saved by my mother. She’d lived a long time and had lost everything more than once. The first time was in the 1930s, they took her cow, her horse, her house. The second time, there’d been a fire, the only thing she’d saved was me. Now she said, “We have to get through it. After all, we’re alive”

Chernobyl Prayer (2016 translation by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait):

“My mother was the saving of me. In the course of a long life, she had been deprived of her home and everything she had earned. The first time was when she was purged in the 1930s. They confiscated everything: her cow, her horse, her house. The second time it was a fire, and all she was able to save was me, her little daughter, plucked from the flames. ‘You just have to get through it,’ she comforted me. ‘The main thing is, we’re still alive.’

The 2016 translation is based on the revised (2013) version of the text, and is longer – containing whole sections of text not in the 2005 translations (as well, as this example suggests, being more verbose in a line-by-line comparison with the 2005 translation).


So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Quick thoughts about Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed , a compelling, charming exploration of the ‘great renaissance of public shaming’, its mob psychology and the individual stories of the people involved:

– lots of the negative consequences of public shaming described in the book would be mitigated if it was harder for US corporations to fire people.

– i think part of what makes internet shaming hard to wrap your head around (and which I don’t think Ronson ever really deals with) is the scale – both how many people get involved, and the disproportion between the individual actions (the shameful tweet, the individual shaming responses) and how the consequences. People kill themselves, or get fired, but no single act is the cause (“no snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche”). It is hard to make sense of the this world where unimportant actions generate massively important reactions.

– Is Ronson being a bit disingenuous when he says he is interested in shaming because he has been a perpetrator? Maybe he’s called someone out online, but I doubt he’s ever sent the kind of abuse he describes in book (death and rape threats etc).

– Who are those guys, anyway? I understand that he didn’t want to write a book about trolling, but they seem like an integral part of the story. I don’t meet anybody who speaks like that offline (and rarely online). Who are these people? And if they are us, why are they like this online?

– There wasn’t enough talk about specific platforms, and the choices they’ve made that enable the dynamics discussed. Let’s face it, when we talk about social media we mostly mean facebook and twitter. Both are really good at letting complex chains of speech/action be taken out of context, and at generating outrage around that. The internet doesn’t have to be this way. Why is it?

– Not enough about politics, and related moral tribalism. The outrages (memorably labelled in the book ‘a cathartic substitute for social justice’) are moral outrages, often with an explicit political agenda (e.g. anti-racism). Paging Jon Haidt

– I would love to hear more analysis of public pressure, and why specific actors feel the need to bow to it (or not). It seem that when one of the corporations in the book fires someone because of a badly worded tweet, they aren’t making a judgement about the truth of the claim that the person is sexist (or whatever), but rather that the truth of that claim has become irrelevant. The victim needs to be fired because everyone says they need to be fired. How do you get out of situations like that?

Guardian excerpt of the book: ‘Overnight, everything I loved was gone’: the internet shaming of Lindsey Stone

Jon Ronson on twitter:

books politics

Graeber on Pinker

David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” tells the story of the erosion of social economies by market economies, fueled by a nexus of cash, war and slavery. The way Graeber tells it, the history of Western Civilisation is a history of incredible violence – both the actual violence of colonialism, slavery and debt enslavement, and the moral violence of the conceiving of the self as an isolated individual with ownership over her body and her rights.

I try and summarise the book here and have some commentary here.

Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined“, published the same year, presents a very different view of history. Pinker’s analysis supports the idea that 21st Century western society is a utopia of non-violence, in which deaths and physical harms by violence have been progressively contained and diminished over historical time. Part of this argument is the claim that per-agricultural societies are or were dangerous, homicidal places – he quotes statistics showing that something like 30% of male deaths in some foraging societies are murders. One ‘civilizing factor’ in Pinker’s account is the growth of the state and the state’s monopolising of violence.

Recently Graeber put out an “ask me anything” on twitter, so I asked him to comment on Pinker’s book, and the opposite reading of the history of violence and state power that it offers to “Debt”. He was kind enough to answer, and for convenience I concatenate his replies, made via twitter here (you can see them in the original form by starting with my original question).

Graeber: “He’s wrong [i.e. Pinker is] […] Almost anyone who’s ever had a choice of living under states & the “terrible violent” places he decries choose the latter.
take native americans & settler – captured settlers who had option of returning to their families often refused to; indigenous people who were offered right to stay in settler society, even adopted into families, invariably escaped the moment they could

same thing seems to happen with Amazonian societies today

so anyone who knows what life is like in both sorts of society, then has a choice which to live in, never chooses states


his argument that one social order was self-evidently superior is clearly false

This argument from choice doesn’t really seem to engage with Pinker’s argument: people might choose non-state societies AND they be more violent. Pinker’s account of violence in pre-state societies is contested in the scholarly literature, so it is hard for a non-anthropologist like me to judge. Plausibly, Pinker’s thesis can still hold if the historical span is restricted to the period from (horrifically violent) early state societies to now – but that leaves open a wide range of anthropological possibilities for how society could be organised and avoid violence. In other words, it leaves as distinctly more plausible the alternatives that Graeber’s anarchist thought supports.

books Me

For argument’s sake

cover of ebook
I have (self) published an ebook For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds. It is the collection of two essays that were originally published on Contributoria and The Conversation. I have revised and expanded these, and added a guide to further reading on the topic. There are bespoke illustrations inspired by Goya (of owls), and I’ve added an introduction about why I think psychologists and journalists both love stories that we’re irrational creatures incapable of responding to reasoned argument. Here’s something from the book description:

Are we irrational creatures, swayed by emotion and entrenched biases? Modern psychology and neuroscience are often reported as showing that we can’t overcome our prejudices and selfish motivations. Challenging this view, cognitive scientist Tom Stafford looks at the actual evidence. Re-analysing classic experiments on persuasion, as well as summarising more recent research into how arguments change minds, he shows why persuasion by reason alone can be a powerful force.

All in, it’s close to 7000 words and available from Amazon now

books politics

More on Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 years

“The story of the origins of capitalism, then, is not the story of the gradual destruction of traditional communities by the impersonal power of the market. It is, rather, the story of how an economy of credit was converted into an economy of interest; of the gradual transformation of moral networks by the intrusion of the impersonal—and often vindictive—power of the state.” (p.332)

Our attitude to debt is a symptom of this erosion of social economies by currency economies. Mutually agreed, honour, credit is replaced by state-backed, economic credit. Loans which inexorably grow due to interest are enforced by brutal laws against debtors. This is the context for the rapacity of European colonialists – they were driven on by the tyranny of interest.

“All this helps explain why the church had been so uncompromising in its attitude toward usury. It was not just a philosophical question; it was a matter of moral rivalry. Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself. Allow it to expand and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison. For the debtor, the world is reduced to a collection of potential dangers, potential tools, and potential merchandise. Even human relations become a matter of cost-benefit calculation. Clearly, this is the way the conquistadors viewed the worlds they set out to conquer” (p. 319)

It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor. The conquest of the Americas began with mass enslavement, then gradually settled into various forms of debt peonage, African slavery, and “indentured service” (p.350)

This is a scandal not just because the system occasionally goes haywire, as it did in the Putumayo, but because it plays havoc with our most cherished assumptions about what capitalism really is—particularly that, in its basic nature, capitalism has something to do with freedom. For the capitalists, this means the freedom of the marketplace. For most workers, it means free labor. Marxists have questioned whether wage labor is ultimately free in any sense (since someone with nothing to sell but his or her body cannot in any sense be considered a genuinely free agent), but they still tend to assume that free wage labor is the basis of capitalism.

Our dominant image of the origins of capitalism continues to be the English workingman toiling in the factories of the industrial revolution, and this image can be traced forward to Silicon Valley, with a straight line in between. All those millions of slaves and serfs and coolies and debt peons disappear, or if we must speak of them, we write them off as temporary bumps along the road. Like sweatshops, this is assumed to be a stage that industrializing nations had to pass through, just as it is still assumed that all those millions of debt peons and contract laborers and sweatshop workers who still exist, often in the same places, will surely live to see their children become regular wage laborers with health insurance and pensions, and their children, doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs.”(p351)

With this framing, Graeber repaints Adam Smith’s economic account – “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” etc – as a purely moral account, a utopia utterly unlike the actual economic conditions Smith lived in.

To understand the history of capitalism, however, we have to begin by realizing that the picture we have in our heads, of workers who dutifully punch the clock at 8:00 a.m. and receive regular remuneration every Friday, on the basis of a temporary contract that either party is free to break off at any time, began as a utopian vision, was only gradually put into effect even in England and North America, and has never, at any point, been the main way of organising the production for the market, ever, anywhere.
This is actually why Smith’s work is so important. He created the vision of an imaginary world almost entirely free of debt and credit, and therefore, free of guilt and sin; a world where men and women were free to simply calculate their interests in full knowledge that everything had been prearranged by God to ensure that it will serve the greater good. (p.354).

For some critical commentary see here:, the Crooked Timber seminar (ht Alex)

Update 30/12/12. There’s an important point about rights being conceptualised as property, which Gemma summarises well:

Our freedom is defined as a right, which we own, as opposed to Graeber’s view that rights are actually obligations on others (e.g. our right to free speech is actually others obligations to allow my free speech). Rights have been defined in this way to justify debt-peonage or even slavery – if we own our rights, like property, then we are free to give them away or even sell them (p206).

books quotes

Debt: The first 5,000 years

David Graeber traces a line from Roman property law, through Cartesian dualism and Hobbes’ state of nature, to the foundational myth of the free market:

At this point we can finally see what’s really at stake in our peculiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings. There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty – not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household – to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith, about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, then have to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.

David Graeber (2011) ‘Debt: The First 5000 years’, p209-210.

Graeber uses an anthropologist’s view of history to argue that markets are brought into existence by the state, and particularly by an expansionist military state which wishes to force all social actors to be intermediaries in the war machine. By obliging everyone to accept state currency a state-coinage-slavery complex is created. This dynamic drives the creation of slaves, which are, by definition, people ripped from all social context. The collision of market economies with social economies (which are about interaction as much as obtaining goods) creates a moral dilemma which we can trace written in the texts of all the ancient religions (you’ll have to read the book for details). The dominant modes of human relation in historical time have been three: exchange, hierarchy and communism (not in the Marxist sense). The dominion of the exchange mode, and its perversion into being primarily market exchange, reduces the primacy of the other modes in the models of liberal/market thinkers, and so our conception of our selves (individually and politically) is contaminated by contradictory notions of debt and ownership (again, you’ll have to read the book). Ultimately this finds expression in a vision of ourselves as separate from our own bodies, and in the foundational myth of economics in which we markets come into being de novo among an asocial but equal status collection of isolates who can begin to trade to satisfy their wants.

It’s an extremely rich book, which is also very disorganised in its arguments. I’m still digesting what I’ve read so this is a poor summary. Most importantly for me, and separate from the specifics of the argument, the anthropological and historical material does the job of expanding our conception of what we and our society could be.

Pro-tip: on the final pages (p384-387) Graeber offers his own summary of the thesis of the book.

books intellectual self-defence

books that make you feel like a genius

There’s a nice paragraph in Camilla Power’s book review in the time Times Higher Ed:

While there are interesting ideas here in a random scatter of cases and anecdotes, the trouble is that it makes the reader feel equally random: scatterbrained, as if you’ve been doing idle searches on Google or browsing Wikipedia all day. The kind of theoretical coherence found in the elegant, simple propositions of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene or Amotz and Avishag Zahavi’s The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle – books that made you feel like a genius, armed with a new perspective on the world – is not evident.

Power has captured what is wrong with so much popular science writing, and what is right with those books I really value

books psychology

Why Sherry Turkle is so wrong

Review of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other 2011, Basic Books

(Attention conservation notice: a rambling 1800 word book review in which I am rude about Sherry Turkle and psychoanalysis, and I tell you how to think properly about the psychology of technology)

This book annoyed me so much I wasn’t sure at page 12 if I could manage the other 293. In the end I read the introduction and the conclusion, skimming the rest. Turkle’s argument is interesting and important, I just couldn’t face the supposed evidence she announced she was going to bring out in the body of the book.

Psychoanalysts are conspiracy theorists of the soul, and nowhere is that clearer than in Turkle’s reasoning about technology. Page after page of anecdotes are used to introduce the idea that communications technologies such as email, facebook and twitter offer an illusion of intimacy, but in fact drive us into a new solitude. This might be true, its an important idea to entertain, but pause for a moment to think how you would establish if it really was the case or not.

For Turkle, the evidence is all around, discerned by her keen psycholanlytically-trained psychologist’s eye. A young woman chats to her grandmother on skype for an hour a week – touching example of a relationship deepened and sustained? No! Unbeknownst to the grandmother the young woman uses that hour to catch up on her emails, leaving her unsatisfied with the skype conversation, with vague feelings of guilt and a failure to connect. Turkle combines stories like these of people she’s met with sweeping generalisations about how “we” feel – increasingly disconnected, overwhelmed and unable to tell where the boundary between work and home life is. Text messages, originally a substitute of the phone call you couldn’t make, “very quickly…became the connection of choice” she announces. Really? For everyone?

Throughout Turkle seems to assume that this new age of communications technology has accelerated us into an age of dislocation and disconnection. This may be so, but a few anecdotes about people’s unsatisfactory relationships and yearning for deeper intimacy and authenticity don’t establish this. Here is the news: it was ever so. Now people wonder if their facebook friends are true friends, previously we wondered if our friends on the team, or in the pub, were our true friends. Now we wish for romantic relationships without betrayal and inconvenience, previously this is what we wished for too. Ambiguity, failure and fear of disconnection are not a novel part of online relationships they are part of the human condition and it is mighty irksome that Turkle assumes the novelty of these things. She is seeing what she wants to see in the world around her. There is also an inherent conservatism in her assumption that things were better before this anarchy of technology was loosed upon the world, the assumption that not only were things better before, but that this was the way they were “supposed to be”. The comic thing is that her historical benchmark is just as arbitrary – as if phone calls were a good and proper means of communication, a ceremony of innocence drowned by the destructive forces of text messaging and skype. When the phone was invented there was a moral panic about the what this technology would do for relationships, the same as there was a moral panic when printed books became widespread. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t invent a new form of communication, such as the text messasge, and it come to fill a niche in the ecology of how we relate to each other. People haven’t stopped making phone calls, they have augmented the way they communicate with text messages, not substituted texting for phoning.

Reading the book it is hard to shake the impression that everything Turkle says is in a slightly dismayed and hysterical tones “Oh no! The kids are using text messaging” “Oh no! People underestimate the distracting effect of checking their email!” “Oh no! The kids find face to face conversations threatening, the little dears can’t live in the real world”

Again: it was ever so. And of course, with anything new, you can always find some genuinely mislead and bewildered people. Turkle has some striking examples of people who wish for relationships – both romantic and sexual – with robots. This shows, she says, that we are in the ‘robotic moment’. It is not that robots are ready for our desires, but that our desires are now ready for the idea for intimacy with robots. A young woman yearns for a robot lover, wanting to trade her human boyfriend for a “no risk relationship”; an elderly woman saying that her robot dog “won’t die suddenly and abandon you and make you very sad”; the genuinely astounding argument of David Levy’s “Love and Sex with Robots” which proposes that soon we’ll be fighting for the right to marry robots in the same way we fought for the right to marry people of the same sex. Are we only discussing these possibilites, asks Turkle, because we are failing each other in human relationships?

The impression I get is of a very earnest anthropologist, speaking to the young people of a alien tribe, ready to be shocked and titillated by their revelations. Do the people speaking to Turkle really believe what they say, or are they egged on by her credulity, just as the tribespeople compete to tell the anthropologist say ever more outrageous things? Yes, yes I would prefer a robot lover. Yes, yes, real men are a disappointment – irritating, changeable – and the simulation of intimacy would be better than a risk on authentic intimacy.

My problem is not that people are seeking to escape human frailty and ambiguity with robots, but that Turkle seems to assume that there was ever a time when some people didn’t try to escape human frailty and ambiguity. It isn’t that we are newly dissatisfied with our relationships, that we are newly struggling for authenticity. Rather it is that the old struggle has found a new form, that the eternal uncertainties we have of ourselves and each other are given a new light by technology.

Turkle has a important point disguised by a boring pessimism. “Relationships with robots are ramping up; relationships with people are ramping down” she says “of every technology, we must ask, Does it serve our human purposes?” This later point is vitally important. The idea that Turkle has proven that human relationships are “ramping down” due to the current communications technology is the distraction. This is just a generational cry of despair, common to every age, when one age group realise they don’t understand or don’t like how their children behave.

True, we must ask how technology can be built to enhance our relationships, and true intimacy and authenticity are endangered, but it was always so and Turkle’s speculations of doom help only to muddy the waters.

I find myself wondering why Turkle has this pervasive pessimism about our ability to sensibly navigate these new technologies. Perhaps, it is related to the stance she seems to adopt to the characters that populate her anecdotes, which is of subjects under her microscope, an amorphous mass of “them” rather than as unique individuals with stories and weaknesses just like all of us. This may just be my knee-jerk dislike of psychoanalysts but her stance towards these characters in her argument always felt condescending and arrogant, as if she alone possessed the objective stance, as if only she, with her psychoanalytic training, was expert enough to discern the loneliness and feel what they themselves didn’t know they felt. Again, the tone reminded me of the naive anthropologist – aren’t they strange?! Isn’t their confusion fascinating?!

I would have had more faith in Turkle’s reasoning if she talked more about her experience, rather than relating this anecdotes from people she met at conferences and at Parisian dinner parties.

Turke’s underlying assumption is that technology is a thing separate from, or gets in between, authentic relationships. (There’s a comparison to those who diagnose an addiction to the internet, as if the internet were a substance, when it is just a medium). In fact, technology is part of relationships because it is part of our minds (see Andy Clark’s book Natural Born Cyborgs for an exploration of this idea). Technology cannot get in the way of some kind of natural detection of reality because we never have direct contact with reality – it is always mediated by culture, history, language, expectations, and the whole architecture of our minds for understanding the world. As every psychologist should know, the idea of “virtual reality” is a misnomer because reality has always been virtual. A concrete example of this confusion is when Turkle assumes that she (alone) can tell the real (flesh and blood) encounters from the fake (technologically mediated) encounters. “The ties we form through the internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind” she says solemnly. This is a ridiculous generalisation, and must be confusing to all those who met over the internet, or have had relationships deepened because of the internet. Can you imagine how ridiculous Turkle would sound if she’d made such a generalisation about another medium. “The ties formed through writing are not the ties that bind”, “The ties formed by those speaking French are not the ties that bind”. Nonsense! Again Turkle has been distracted by her pessimism and her conservatism. The problem of human bonds is not a new one, we’ve always struggled to find rapprochement with each other, the internet doesn’t change that. It does give the problem interesting new dimensions, and I’ve no doubt that we’ll struggle collectively with these new dimensions for decades, but I don’t see Turkle doing anything to make clear the outlines of the problem or advance any solutions.

New technology is easy to think about, partly because the novel always stands out against the background of the old, and partly because it is easier to think about the material aspects of things, and the material aspects of technology can be ubiquitous (like text messages and email) or particularly entrancing (like robots). But let me give an alternative vision to Turkle’s Cassandra wail. Rather than technology, a far more real threat to intimacy and authenticity in the modern world is the continuous parade of advertising which tries to hock material goods with the promise that they can give access to transcendent values. Cars which give freedom, cameras which give friendship, diamonds that which give love and clothes that give confidence. Here is a cultural force, with a massive budget and the active intention to make us dissatisfied with our possessions, our lifestyles, our bodies and our relationships. How about we worry a bit more about that, and less about the essentially democratic technologies of communication.

books events Me psychology

The Narrative Escape

My ebook “The Narrative Escape” was published last week by 40k books. ‘The Narrative Escape’ is a long essay about morality, psychology and stories and is availble in Kindle format (this means you can get it for you iPhone, iPad or in PDF too). From the ebook blurb:

We instinctively tell stories about our experiences, and get lost in stories told by other people. This is an essay about our story-telling minds. It is about the psychological power of stories, and about what the ability to enjoy stories tells us about the fundamental nature of mind.

My argument in ‘The Narrative Escape’ begins by exploring Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience, looking at them as an example of moral decision making – particularly for that minority that choose to disobey in the experiment. A fascinating thing about these experiments is that although they tell us a lot about what makes people obey authority, they leave mysterious that quality that makes people resist tyrannical authority. I then go on to contrast this moral disobedience, with conventional psychological investigations of morality (for example the work of Lawrence Kohlberg). In using descriptions of moral dilemmas to ask people about their moral reasoning this research, I argue, misses something essential about real-world moral choices. This element is the ability to realise that you are acting according to someone else’s version of what is right and wrong, and to step outside of their definition of the situation. This is the “narrative escape” of the title. The essay also talks about dreams, stories and story-telling and other topics which I hope will be of interest.

There is also an interview with me available here, which discusses the ebook and some other more and less related topics.

The essay is available in Italian as “La Fuga Narrativa Link for the English edition.
…And coming soon in Portuguese, I’m told!

books sheffield

Yellow Caribou Readers is a book group in Sheffield

The Yellow Caribou Readers is a book group in Sheffield, England. We like literature, arts and culture in the wider sense, and the fantastic pubs of our hometown. We meet monthly and new members are always welcome. The website is

books intellectual self-defence quotes

Moral Clarity by Susan Neiman

Susan Neiman’s “Moral Clarity – a guide for grown-up idealists” (2009) is a passionate and literary book about moral reasoning and the achievements of the Enlightenment (especially Kant). The book contains fantastic and acute re-readings of the myths of Job and Odysseus, as well as plenty of examples of Neiman’s own moral clarity – she has a great analyst’s knack of being able to articulate clearly and succinctly exactly what was so pernicious about many of the arguments and actions of the neocon government under Bush. Recommended.

“The Enlightenment gave reason pride of place, not because it expected absolute certainty, but because it sought a way to live without it”

books Me psychology

Better thinking through chemistry

This chapter was due for inclusion in The Rough Guide Book of Brain Training, but was cut – probably because the advice it gives is so unsexy!

The idea of cognitive enhancers is an appealing one, and its attraction is obvious. Who wouldn’t want to take a pill to make them smarter? It’s the sort of vision of the future we were promised on kids TV, alongside jetpacks and talking computers.

Sadly, this glorious future isn’t here yet. The original and best cognitive enhancer is caffeine (“creative lighter fluid” as one author called it), and experts agree that there isn’t anything else available to beat it. Lately, sleep researchers have been staying up and getting exciting about a stimulant called modafinil, which seems to temporarily eliminate the need for sleep without the jitters or comedown of caffeine. Modafinil isn’t a cognitive enhancer so much as something that might help with jetlag, or let you stay awake when you really should be getting some kip.

Creative types have had a long romance with alcohol and other more illicit narcotics. The big problem with this sort of drug (aside from the oft-documented propensity for turning people into terrible bores), is that your brain adapts to, and tries to counteract, the effects of foreign substances that affect its function. This produces the tolerance that is a feature of most prolonged drug use – whereby the user needs more and more to get the same effect – and also the withdrawal that characterises drug addiction. You might think this is a problem only for junkies but, if you are a coffee or tea drinker just pause for moment and reflect on any morning when you’ve felt stupid and unable to function until your morning cuppa. It might be for this reason that the pharmaceutical industry is not currently focusing on developing drugs for creativity. Plans for future cognitive enhancers focus on more mundane, workplace-useful skills such as memory and concentration. Memory-boosters would likely be most useful to older adults, especially those with worries about failing memories, rather than younger adults.

Although there is no reason in principle why cognitive enhancers couldn’t be found which fine-tune our concentration or hone our memories, the likelihood is that, as with recreational drugs, tolerance and addiction would develop. These enhancing drugs would need to be taken in moderate doses and have mild effects – just as many people successfully use caffeine and nicotine for their cognitive effects on concentration today. Even if this allowed us to manage the consequences of the brain trying to achieve its natural level, there’s still the very real possibility that use of the enhancing drugs would need to be fairly continuous – just as it is with smokers and drinkers of tea and coffee. And even then our brains would learn to associate the drug with the purpose for which they are taken, which means it would get harder and harder to perform that purpose without the drugs, as with the coffee drinker who can’t start work until he’s had his coffee. Furthermore, some reports suggest that those with high IQ who take cognitive enhancers are mostly likely to mistake the pleasurable effect of the substance in question for a performance benefit, while actually getting worse at the thing they’re taking the drug for.

The best cognitive enhancer may well be simply making best use of the brain’s natural ability to adapt. Over time we improve anything we practice, and we can practice almost anything. There’s a hundred better ways to think and learn – some of them are in this book. By practicing different mental activities we can enhance our cognitive skills without drugs. The effects can be long lasting, the side effects are positive, and we won’t have to put money in the pockets of a pharmaceutical company.

Link to more about The Rough Guide book of Brain Training
Three excellent magazine articles on cognitive enhancers, from: The New Yorker, Wired and Discover

Cross-posted at

books events Me psychology

The Rough Guide to Brain Training (Moore & Stafford, 2010)

The Rough Guide to Brain Training is a puzzle book which incluces essays and vignettes by myself. The book has 100 days of puzzles which will challenge your mental imagery, verbal fluency, numeracy, working memory and reasoning skills. There are puzzles that will look familiar like suduko, and some new ones I’ve never seen before. Fortunately the answers are included at the back. Gareth made these puzzles. I find them really hard.

I have 10 short essays in the book, covering topics such as evidence-based brain training, how music affects the developing brain, optimal brain nutrition and what the brains of the future will look like. As well as the essays, I wrote numerous short vignettes, helpful hints and suprising facts from the world of psychology and neuroscience (did you know that squids have dounut shaped brains? That you share 50% of your genes with a banana? That signals travel between brain cells at up to 200mph, which is fast compared to a cycle courier, but slow compared to a fibre optic cable). Throughout the book I try to tell it straight about what is, isn’t and might be true about brain training. I read the latest research and I hope I tell a sober, but optimistic, message about the potential for us to change how we think over our lifetimes (and the potential to protect our minds against cognitive decline in older age). I also used my research to provide a sprinkling of evidence-based advice for those who are trying to improve a skill, study for an exam or simply remember things better.

Writing the book was a great opportunity for me to dig into the research on brain training. It is a topic I’d always meant to investigate properly, but hadn’t gotten around to. The claims of those pushing commercial brain training products always seemed suspicious, but the general idea – that our brains change based on practice and experience – seemed plausible. In fact, this idea has been one of the major trends of the last fifty years of neuroscience research. It has been a big surprise to neuroscientists as experiment after experiment has shown exactly how malleable (aka ‘plastic’) the structure and function of the brain is. The resolution of this paradox of the general plausibility of brain training with my suspicion of specific products is in the vital issue of control groups. Although experience changes our brains, and although it is now beyond doubt that a physically and mentally active life can prevent cognitive decline across the lifespan, it isn’t at all clear what kinds of activities are necessary or essential for general mental sharpness. Sure, after practicing something you’ll get better at it. And doing something is better than doing nothing, but the crucial question is doing something you pay for better than doing something else that is free? The holy grail of brain training would be a simple task which you could practice (and copyright! and sell!!) and which would have benefits for all mental skills. Nobody has shown that such a task or set of tasks exists, so while you could buy a puzzle book, you could also go for a jog or go to the theatre with friends. Science wouldn’t be able to say for certain which activity would have the most benefits for your mental sharpness as an individual – although the smart money is probably on going jogging. It is to the credit of the editors at the Rough Guides that they let me say this in the introduction to the Rough Guide to Brain Training!

There wasn’t room in the book for all the references I used while writing it. This was a great sadness to me, since I believe that unless you include the references for a claim, you’re just spouting off, relying on a dubious authority, rather than really talking about science. So, to make up for this, and by way of an apology, I’ve put the references here. It will be harder to track specific claims from this general list that it would be with in-text citations, so if you do have a query, please get in touch and I promise will point you to the evidence for any claims I make in the book.

Additionally, I’ll be posting here a few things from the cutting room floor – text that I wrote for the book which didn’t make it into the final draft. Watch out, and if you do get your hands on a copy of this Rough Guide to Brain Training, get in touch and let me know what you think.

Amazon link (only £5.24!)
Scientific references and links used in researching the book
Cross-posted at

books intellectual self-defence politics psychology

Ad Nauseam

adnauseam I am reading Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture, edited by Carried McLaren and Jason Torchinsky. The book is a funny, smart and sometimes shocking collection of articles from Stay Free Magazine and blog. I first came across Stay Free when I was researching the psychology of advertising and was impressed by their sophisticated take on how adverts affect consumers’ decision making. They discuss in Ad Nauseam how advertising is often misunderstood, with people relying on an intuitive ‘Advertising doesn’t effect me’ view or swinging to the opposite extreme of the ‘Sinister Advertisers Manipulate Consumers with their Mind Control Tricks’ position. Both positions distract from the very real, but not magical, power of advertising.

The book has a great discussion of Wilson Bryan Key’s Subliminal Seduction, the book that launched the idea that subliminal, and often sexual, figures are embedded in random features of adverts such as in ice cube shadows. The idea of these ’embeds’ is nonsense, of course, but great fun to look for and a great distraction from the real persuasive content of the advert. The book also has a chapter on the origins of modern advertising practice in 19th century pharmaceutical advertising (the manufacturing of ailments for which ready made ‘cures’ can be sold has been covered by Vaughan on before, in relation to the mental health). Packed with critical analysis of the advertising industry, more informative history and some shocking examples of how consumerism has worked its way into many aspects of our daily lives, this book is essential intellectual self-defense, managing to be critical and aware without ever being sanctimonious or hysterical.

Cross-posted at

books Me science

Emotional Cartography book launch talk

The Emotional Cartography book launch was on friday and went off a treat. Since I had, unusually for me, planned my talk by writing it out in full I have reproduced it below. This is more-or-less what I said:

There is a saying that those who want to enjoy laws and sausages should not find out how they are made. I think the same is true about facts. Or rather I think that anyone who wants to believe in simple honest facts, objective lumps of knowledge which are true and eternal, ought to stay away from the places where facts are produced. When you see how facts are made you ought to gain, I believe, a healthy scepticism about how they are used.

I am a scientist — an experimental psychologist — and I work in a University. In the University, in the Faculty of Science, we like to think we are the factory of facts. Yet, it still surprises me that some of my colleagues still believe in simple honest facts, even after years in the workrooms squeezing the meat of messy reality into the offal tubes of truth. Many times I’ve been faced down by these colleagues who refuse to believe that some complex social or political dilemma is really problematic. “Just find out the facts” they say. “When we know the facts, what do — about schools, israel-palestine, whatever — will become obvious”

Curious that anyone who has seen facts being made can still believe that on their own they’ll help!

I’m reminded of another quote, this one by Matt Cartmill – Professor of Biology, at Duke University. He said,

“As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life – so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so that you can meet girls.”

Now don’t get me wrong, facts do exist. We look to the stars and ask if things can be known — can things be known? And things can be known. There is right and wrong, true and untrue. Facts, in this sense, do exist. But they aren’t enough for a balanced intellectual diet.

I think facts are seductive because they take a lot of technical skill to produce. If you want to make even a basic truth which will hang together long enough to survive being passed around, you need a lot of disciplinary training. You need expensive and complex measuring equipment, you need esoteric statistical techniques and you need to make the right comparisons. All this takes time and money and a lot of discipline specific experience. No wonder scientists are proud of their facts, and the facts themselves invoke some envy and respect.

The problem is that facts always — always! — come with a set of presumptions, they always come along with a view of the world that they promote.

If you’ve read Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, his sprawling riotous novel of wartime paranoia you might know one of his Proverbs for Paranoids: “If you can get them asking the wrong questions, you don’t have to worry about the answers”

To stop this getting too abstract, and to bring it back to the book that we’re gathered here to launch, let’s talk about maps.

Everyone interested in maps should read Dennis Wood’s “The Power of Maps”. I believe this so strongly I have forced myself to only say this once, so that was it.

I read this book while I was working on a thing called the Sheffield Greenmap. Greenmaps are community mapping projects designed to mark environmental and community sites in a local area. Dennis Wood talks about the selective accuracy of maps, how they show one part of the world, and can seduce you into thinking (because of the professionalism of their accuracy) that their representation is the way to view the world. But, he said, “Accuracy is not the issue. Selectivity is the issue”. Perhaps because I was involved with the Sheffield Greenmap project these words of his resonated with me very strongly. Maps are choices about how to view the world. When I looked at maps of my hometown, maps which I would happily point to and say “this is Sheffield”, I saw the one way roads marked, the petrol stations. The base I used for the greenmap of the area around the University was based on the University’s own map. Running up the hill from the University in Sheffield is a road with parks either side of it. When I came to look at the University map, I noticed, for the first time, that only one of the parks was marked. The road, you see, was also a socio-demographic division between the leafy suburb of the university and the estates next door. For the University, the park next to the estates didn’t exist (or at least not as a place for students and University visitors to go).

The greenmap project made me look at the maps of Sheffield and ask why what was on them was on them. Why the roads and the petrol stations, why not the scenic routes through park, the community cafes and the places you could lock your bike up?

Accuracy wasn’t the issue. Selectivity was.

Wood discusses the ‘general purpose’ map as a particularly insidious example of interests using maps to mask their interests. The generality, the lack of explicit purpose, in a map disguises that it represents the end of a careful and directed process of selection. Like the scientific facts, the beauty of the technical process can blind you to the bias inherent in the construction.

I was invited to contribute to the Emotional Cartography because of Mind Hacks, a book I wrote with Matt Webb and a few valiant contributors in 2004. Mind Hacks is a collection of 100 do it yourself experiments that you can try at home and which reveal something about the moment-to-moment workings of your mind and brain. Our ambition with the book was to perform a smash and grab on the goodies of cognitive neuroscience, to open source some of the fascinating science that has been done, turning it into demonstrations which anyone could try. We wanted to make some of what was known about the mind available to be re-purposed by other people. So designers, artists, educators and whoever could notice and reuse various principles of how our minds make sense of the world.

Lately I’ve come to think — and this was inspired by writing the chapter in Emotional Cartography — that the view of the mind we took in Mind Hacks was limited. And this limitation reflects that of academic psychology as a whole. We focussed on the perceptions, thoughts and feelings of isolated individuals, rather than of people in their full social context, in interaction with others.

This is why I’m excited about Emotional cartography. It takes the idea of open-sourcing the production and consumption of facts to the social level.

First, emotional cartography. We’re a visuo-spatial species. We love sights, spaces, exploring with our eyes. We reify this prioritisation into maps, which are themselves inherently visuo-spatial. If you believe that maps are a kind of technology for thinking with, which I do (my chapter in the book is about this), then this is turn makes it easier to think about the kinds of things which are easiest to show on a map. The maps of physical space then make this selection bias invisible, by pretending to be natural.

Emotional Cartography makes another kind of information mappable, and this opens up the space to think with and debate about what that mapping makes explicit. For example: why are people anxious or excited in this place? Is that something we should do something about?

The other reason I’m excited about emotional cartography is because, truly, it opens up a space for emotional cartographies — a refocussing on the process of mapping and remapping. By open-sourcing mapping it allows mapping to be a processes rather than a product and this powerfully opens up space for people to take part in the negotiation of the representation of their own geographical spaces. Rather than one true map of a locale, there are many maps, and these maps can be a medium for the mappers to meet and discuss their feelings, the places where they live, and the interrelation of these two things.

So let me finish by congratulating Christian on his idea and all his hard work which resulted in this book, let me congratulate the other authors for their contributions and let me commend to you the practice of emotional cartography because, as should be obvious by now, in all areas of life, including map making, I believe it is far more satisfying to be a participant than a mere consumer.

books events Me

Emotional Cartography book launch

Tonight we are launching ‘Emotional Cartography – Technologies of the Self’, an edited collection inspired by Christian Nold’s project of making maps of individual’s emotional responses in different areas. Christian edited the volume, which has a contribution by me (the last chapter) on the how technology can augment how we think. Tonight we’re having a book launch at which myself, Christian and Sophie Hope will speak. If it’s not too late notice, you’re welcome to come down.

books read in 2005

As requested by Cat, the books I read in 2005. Strong recommendations in bold.

An Ordinary Person’s Guide To Empire. Arundhati Roy (2004). Jan
A Thousand Years of Non-linear history. Manuel de Landa (1997). Feb
(presumably I read some other books Feb-May but I’ve lost the list)
The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley (1994) 18 June
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2003) 20 June
Beyond the Ballot: 57 Democratic Innovations From Around the World, Graham Smith (2005) 29 June
The Great Divorce, CS Lewis (1946) 30 June
The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman (2000) 3 July
Iron in the Soul, J.P. Sartre (1949) 21 July
Fountain at the Centre of the World, Rob Newman (2003) 4 August
Things Can Only Get Better, John O’Farrell (1999) 5 August
Fierce Dancing, CJ Stone (1996) 7 August
It’s a Lot Like Dancing: Aikido Journey, Terry Dobson, Riki Moss, and Jan E. Watso (1994) 8 August
Broke Through Britain, Peter Montimer (1999) 20 August
The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger (1998) 26 August
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell (1933) 2 Sept
The No-nonsense guide to the arms trade, Gideon Burrows (2002) 2 Sept
The Corporation, Joel Baklan (2005)
Toxic Sludge is Good for You, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (2004)
We Know What You Want, Martin Howard (2005)
The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard (1959)
The Thought Gang, Tibor Fischer (1994) 8 Nov
Diary, Chuck Palahniuk (2003) 9 Nov
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997) 17 Nov
The Next Fifty Year, John Brokman (ed, 2003) 29 Nov
Willing Slaves, Madeleine Bunting (2004)
Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis (1990)
Cassini Division, Ken McLeod (1998) 23 Dec
The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz (2004)
Party’s Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, Richard Heinberg (2005)

List for 2008 here. Top three from 2005: The Corporation, Paradox of Choice, A Thousand Years of Non-linear History.


books read in 2008

Following Matt, and after being asked by Tom, here is the list of books I read in 2008. The ones I strongly recommend are in bold.

Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871) 17 Jan
The Improvisation Game, Chris Johnston (2005) 26 Jan
Prisoner’s Dilemma, William Poundstone (1992) 2 Feb
Secrets of Creation: Vol 1: The Mystery of the Prime Numbers, Matthew Watkins (2008, proofs) 5 Feb
Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, Kathleen Taylor (2004) 7 Feb
The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein (2007) 17 Feb
Breakdown of Will, George Ainslie (2001) 12 March
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (180) March
Kluge, Gary Marcus (2008) 8 April
V, Thomas Pynchon (1963) April
The Map of Love, Ahdaf Soueif (2000) 23 May
Permutation City, Greg Egan (1994) 10 June
Meaning Medicine and the “Placebo Effect”, Daniel Moerman (2002) 8 June
Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman (2006) 15 June
Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon (1995) 21 June
Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande (2007) 28 June
My Uncle Oswald, Roald Dahl (1979) 28 June
Sin City: Hell and Back, Frank Miller (2005) 6 July
Divided Kingdom, Rupert Thomson (2005) 18 July
Micromotives and Macrobehaviour, Thomas Schelling (1978) 15 July
Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter (1984) 25 July
Standloper, Alan Garner (1996) 17 August
Impro for Storytellers, Kieth Johnstone (1994/99) 18 August
Sight Unseen, Goodale & Milner (2004) 24 August
The Wretched of the Earth, Franz Fannon (1963) 23 August
Neither Victims Nor Executioners, Albert Camus (1946) 24 August, r.
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon (1965) 30 August
The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, Ed. Angela Carter (1990) 31 August
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1994) 7 September, r.
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktore E. Frankl (1945/1959) 8 September
The Science of Self-Control, Howard Rachlin (2000) 18 September
Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, John Grey (2003) 5 October
A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick (1977) 16 October, r.
Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, Ian Rowland (2002), 20 October
The Elfish Gene, Mark Barrowcliffe (2007), 25 October
Moominvalley in November, Tove Jansson (1971), 30 October
Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree, Kate Wheeler (ed., 2004), Nov
All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCathy (1992), 11 December
Active Vision, Findlay & Gilchrist (2003), 28 December

39 is a lot less that Matt’s 104, but I reckon my commute is about fifty minutes less than his, and its hard to read while cycling 🙂

It’s about 50-50 fiction/non-fiction, but I reckon I spent most of the time on non-fiction since it is slower going. My top two would be ‘The Shock Doctrine’ and ‘Sight-Unseen’. A top three is too hard.


No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart

Cover of “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice”

I have been seriously impressed by Tom Slee’s book “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice”. It’s an accessible guide to economic game theory and an impassioned critique of market popularism. Slee is obviously an activist, but also has a measured, academic approach to economic theory. What is great is that he uses standard economic theory and simple illustrations to make a case for the necessity of collective action for solving our problems. It shows how far MarketThink dominates popular discourse that such a minimal plea comes across as radical. “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart” is a lively and intelligent guide to how good individual choices can lead to regretable outcomes, and the ideas in it are essential tools for intellectual self-defence.

Book website

Blog of the book

books politics systems

Questions for economists

Tim Harford wrote ‘The Undercover Economist’ and also writes the ‘Dear Economist’ column for the Financial Times. His book is excellent — a very readable introduction to economic theory and how it applies to various facets of everyday life. I was going to write him a letter, but then I found out that he’d sold half a million copies of his book and so, reckoning that he’d be too busy to write back to me, I am posting my thoughts here. This is partly for my own benefit as a note-to-self and partly because I’d be very happy to get answers from anyone or everyone on the questions I ask. Useful references are an acceptable substitute for wordy explanations.

Dear Undercover Economist,

On development — can everyone be rich? Won’t there always have to be someone to work the fields / clean the toilets / serve the coffee? Technologists answer: automatisation will remove much of life’s drudgery. Environmentalist retort: resources put limits on growth. Economists: imagine a world where every economy is ‘developed’. In that world we would expect to find people are wealthy according to their talents (because talents define scarcity). My question : in that world, what will the utterly talentless be paid to do with their time? Presumably we’ll still be forcing them to clean toilets, because the toilet-cleaning robots will be too expensive (they need to be in order to pay the wages of the very-expensive-to-hire toilet-cleaning-robot designers).

Information asymmetry: Akerlof (1970) has a description of how information asymmetry can prevent a viable market existing. Harford’s discussion credits to information asymmetry the reason why you can’t get a decent meal in tourist areas, but I am wondering if the effects are far more wide reaching that this. Big organisations will have an information advantage over individual consumers (on some things), as will anyone who devotes their entire economic energy to a single domain (eg selling avocados) over someone who is time poor (eg the typical avocado buyer). Coupled with a dynamic economic environment, couldn’t those with informational advantage effectively manipulate those with informational disadvantage? In other words, i’d be willing to bet that in a static market even an extremely informationally-deprived / cognitively challenged agent will work out the best deal, given enough time. But if the best deal keeps changing (and those with the information advantage keep changing it to suit their ends) the chances of the individual agent aren’t so good. File under benefits of collectivisation / market failure?

Efficiency of the market leads to loss of diversity (because all inefficient solutions are squeezed out). Diversity has it’s own value, both in system robustness (see ecosystems) and in terms of human experience (belonging to a specific place, variety being the spice of life, etc). So how do we incorporate the value of this diversity into market systems? I would submit that diversity is an example of something that exists above the single-agent view of things — is an example of an emergent phenomenon (see below). (Previously on idiolect Why is capitalism boring?)

Markets don’t have foresight. Do free marketeers admit that this is one of the functions of government? For example imagine agents who like to consume some finite resource. Presumably a ‘free market’ will be the most efficient way to organise their consumption. Efficient consumption of the resouce leads to its disappearence. Then what? In the Undercover Economist (p237) Harford says that in markets ‘mistakes cannot happen’ because any experiments with resources stay small scale. I would submit that while this is true at the micro level, with respect to efficiency — in other words, I agree that markets tend to efficiency — this is not true at the macro level, with respect to whole-system health.

An objection to this is that markets do have foresight because the individual agents have foresight – so they will incorporate into their cost function the anticipated future (so, eg, anticipated future resource availability). But what is agents do not have the information, or motivation to worry about the future? Does my concern just resolve down to the existence, or not, of the tragedy of the commons? Perhaps. I think key is the existence of a discontinuity between agent-level information and collective-level information; ie the issue is really about emergence, which is what the tragedy of the commons is really a specific example of.

Side note: if you are a market economist you are a de facto fan of emergence. Aggregate effects which emerge from mass individual action = emergence. Disconnection between individual goals (eg profit) and collective outcomes (efficiency). Etc. Economics is interesting precisely because their are non-obvious relations between agents and outcomes.

Side note the second: there is an essential similarity between economics and cognitive psychology – a focus on information processing. Further, market economics recognises the power of distributed information processing, as does the connectionist school of cognitive psychology. This is the reason I talk about agents, rather than consumers. I believe that the same principles will not just apply to the economic and social sciences, but also to the social sciences (remember Minksy’s “Society of Mind”). A question: can we usefully apply the idea of a distributed, free, ‘informational economy’ to undestanding neural coding? (Remember Glimcher’s “Neuroeconomics”)


Unspeak, by Steven Poole

I have just finished Steven Poole’s Unspeak, which is an excellent, impassioned, bitingly funny review of the way words are used to promote particular views of the world.

“Words have consequences in the world”, argues Poole in the epilogue, “…Unspeak itself does violence to meaning. It seeks to annihilate distinctions”. He explicitly distances himself from Lakoff’s ‘language frames’ view, where “the framing of the debate determines who will win the debate” (Howard Dean) and the only defense is prmote an alternate frame (to reframe). This, says Poole, will only lead to a clash of Unspeaks, rather than fostering any kind of sober dialogue. Poole quotes Ranko Bugarski: “What is needed [is the] judicious use of normal language, allowing for fine-grained selection and discrimination, for urbanity and finesse”. An admirable aim in hysterical times!

Steven Poole’s Upspeak website

John Quiggin review of Unspeak at Crooked Timber



remembering cycling down the hill last night. Empty streets, it hadn?t rained yet and the distant street-lights across the city looked like cold lost jewels. Knowing this run, this curve, this curb which affords a jump and then the switch to the other side of the road to keep the racing line. Pushing the speed all the time, not racing anyone, not being timed, but always trying to accelerate, always peddling, even though it?s downhill. Braking at the corners, leaning into the turn, feeling the tug of the motion as you swerve out of it and lean the other way. Throwing weight and speed and will into this next jump, the wheels spin on air ? a moment of divine suspension ? and then touching down, feeling the bite of the ground and starting to pedal again at that absolutely right and correct instant. A singular object racing without thought over an urban playground. Knowing and feeling all the contours and lines of the ground moved over, responding to the opportunities it gives for your energy to hurtle over it, pitching forward to the next opportunity. Then -Red lights and the world forcing you to a stop, just so it can catch up. Breathing in, everything still buzzing, in alert repose waiting for the starting light?and?.go!


Edinburgh Round-up

For what it’s worth…


Puppetry of the Penis – After the guys had taken their clothes off: “I really hope no one in the audience is thinking ‘So where are the puppets'”


Switch Triptych – From the Riot Group who stirred controversy with their ‘Anti-war’ Pugalist Specialist. Set in a telephone exchange, circa 1919, and circling themes of modernity, corporatism and mechanisisation. Excellent stuff

The Exonerated – Made from the real testimony of six people wrongfully convicted, sent to death row and later exonerated. If it is possible for something to be extremely moving and also cheap – in the sense of too easy – this is it.

Shane Koyczan – Performance poet. A-maz-ing. A cross between ani difranco and leonard cohen.


Dick Taverne, ‘Science and Society’ – Promoting his new book ‘The March of Unreason’, Dick rails agains the rising tide of irrationality and emphasises the fundamental entanglement of science and democracy. Fair nuff, but i think he’s a little unfair to those who buy into things he views as nonsense. Getting the proper scientific low-down on a topic is reserved for a privilaged view – privilaged in terms of time, and in terms of education/enculturation. Dick might have time to read 2,400 page reports on climate change, but most of us don’t. To say “We know this is nonsense, this-and-that many respectable scientific authorities say it is” is insufficient for those of us trying to make sense of things without the privilages of time and position that enable us to look into it fully, and it’s also profoundly undemocratic, since his injunction to believe the scientific establishment basically amounts to the same old mantra of “Leave it to the chief, trust authority, don’t think for yourself”. Oh and he also said that organic farming is a con, pesticide residues are harmless (so why do people get Parkinson’s Disease?) and that no one in the developing world opposed globalisation. What, no one?!

Give up! Start Over! (In the darkest of times i think of Richard Nixon) – A sweaty, physical, cut-up of speeches by richard nixon, Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation and ‘Reality TV – An Inside’s Guide’. This is an intense work-out/meditation on the construction of reality and celebrity in our television culture. Left my head so full i had to sit and do nothing for about the next three hours. Just blew me away. “Be yourself. Or the most easily typecast version of yourself” “Your fifteen minutes – or point two megabytes -of fame” “In the language of intimacy”

Poppycock! – passed the time

A thousand natural shocksGive up! Start over! was so good i went to the other show by the same group, which seemed to have less center to it, and hence (at points) descended into the kind of avant-garde theatre it would be just impossible to paraody

Rob Newmnan , Apocalypso Now – Bill Hicks meets chomsky. Good god this man is funny and clever. Perhaps the second best thing i saw after Give up! Start over!. “If you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear – or, as it is also known, everyone who is worried about being persecuted should be perscuted” “I’m not saying it was the cause for war, just a cause for war – part of a nexus of loosely connected interacting causal forces. That’s my new catchphrase”

Radioshow – showing sometime on radio four in the 11pm comedy slot. Was funny

Er…that’s it for shows. I drunk a load of booze and black coffee too. Edinburgh is way cool – it’s like the Berlin of the UK, I could definitely live there.


Making words needed

Part of any good advice on writing is to cut everything that isn’t doing some work. As the classic says ‘Omit needless words’, ‘Vigourous writing is concise’.

It occurs to me that sometimes, especially with scientific writing, that rather than have a choice of what to include and what to omit, you have a fixed number of ideas to include and your task, as a writer, is the mirror of the maxim above. Rather than ‘omit needless words’ you must find a way to make needed the words/ideas you are compelled to include. Any advice on how to do this would be appreciated.


the evening redness in the west

In the future, when the world is better organised, when children come of age, we will let ones who’ve been good read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, we’ll tell them that, because they’ve been good, they get to meet the judge. When the ones who have been bad come of age, we’ll make them read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, we’ll tell them that, because they’ve been bad, they get to meet the judge. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says he’ll never die.

This book is simply fantastic, in a blood and dust, Moby Dick meets McCabe And Mrs Miller, gore and unrectified night, kind of way. So man loves games? Then let him play for stakes


The Doctrine of DNA

And some more from Lewontin’s The Doctrine of DNA

The transfer of causal power from social relations into inanimate agents that then seem to have a power and life of their own is one of the major mystifications of science and its ideologies

Which is an as readable, and enjoyable, argument against genetic reductionism as you could hope to find. I’m guessing that many people would say their reductionism is a methodological tactic rather than a ideological commitment, but Lewontin’s characterisation of popular discourse is accurate enough, i fear, to convince that however tactical genetic reductionism may be when adopted by scientists it becomes far less self-conscious as it migrates into the public sphere.

[note to self: avoid writing sentences that long and convoluted in the future]

Anyway: yes, society is not a reflection of individual level traits. Yes, organisms and environment co-create. Yes, locating causes in a single physical matter (like DNA) allows us to ignore the wider causal context. There’s lots to nit-pick about Lewontin’s arguments, but without the anchor of some particular example i think it would get so lost in the rhetorical and connotive terrain that it wouldn’t be worth it. Highly recommended


The Other Tom Stafford

A friend writes:

if you click on ‘tom stafford’ on the amazon page for pre-ordering Mind Hacks,
you get a link to your other book. You know, the one you wrote when you were
minus three, about the space race.

And it’s true. The other Tom Stafford is an astronaut who flew on Apollo 10, amongst others. For a while he was top of google for a search on ‘Tom Stafford’, but i tipped him off the top spot.

Incidentally, he’s also quoted by my favourite band, the New Model Army (who are playing in manchester on the 16th of December, by the way). On their song Space from the album Impurity, Joolz reads this quotation by the astronaut:

The white twisted clouds and the endless shades of blue in the ocean make the hum of the spacecraft systems, the radio chatter, even your own breathing disappear. There is no cold or wind or smell to tell you that you are connected to Earth. You have an almost dispassionate platform – remote, Olympian and yet so moving that you can hardly believe how emotionally attached you are to those rough patterns shifting steadily below.

So there you go


Mind Hacks pre-order

Mind Hacks is now available for pre-order, e.g. from Amazon ( and .com)


Morals on Copyright

The great thing about trying to coordinate book production over three continents is that whatever time of the day or night it is, there is always someone you can ring. I just wish we were working with more people in Japan so I’d have more to do in the hours when the Americans have left work but the Europeans haven’t got up yet.

I’ve hit a momentary lull, so here are some mental notes-to-self on the business of getting permission to reprint figures and excerpts from other people’s books, articles and websites (I am not a lawyer, so there may be errors in my understanding here – it’d love to hear any corrections/qualifications people have):

  • If I publish something again I will try and keep copyright of the figures, so some money-grabbing publisher isn’t trying to charge people to reuse them 60 years after my death (resulting in them not being reprinted usually)
  • If I write something again I will start on the figure permissions early. I imagine this is the sort of thing all authors write on their New Year’s Resolutions list, tell their children, have on an embossed plaque above their desk, etc.
  • In fact, I may even employ someone else to do the figures (preferably someone in publishing who understands the whole damn thing). Unfortunately this means that if write something again I will need to be being paid about 10 times more to be able to afford to outsource any of the work at a decent hourly rate.
  • Emailed permission from publishers/professionals is acceptable (e.g. from the publishers of a journal which holds copyright for the figure in a scientific paper which they’ve published [1]). These guys know what they are doing. Permission from an individual/unprofessional needs to be in writing, signed. When they say “It’s fine” they don’t really know what they are agreeing to (especially since you don’t really know what your publisher will do with the material), so you need to make them read the form and agree to it.
  • Organisations and individuals alike forget about your permission request. Ring them after you’ve emailed them. Keep tabs on all your permission-requests, chase everything after about 10 working days (maximum), don’t let anything drop from your responsibility on the assumption that the other party will do anything about it (rearrange the words “disaster”, “recipe” and “for” to make a common phrase or saying).
  • If the figure/excerpt you are using is a minor part of your work, and/or a minor part of the work you are reprinting from, make sure the copyright holder is aware of that
  • Properly credit everything. It’s a pain to try and source things which other people have used without giving a full acknowledgement of the origin. Sometimes you will just have to go to the library to fully source something. This is worth doing – it is often definitive (compared to google) and sometimes very rewarding (when you find out that something is copyright free or public domain for instance).
  • There are ways round copyright with derivations/redrawings, but I don’t understand them at all. Find out more about this
  • Some things you will just have to drop.

    [1] Another part of the general scam of scientific publishing. Scientists (paid by public money often) write, edit, peer-review and proof the articles for free, draw the figures, etc, etc and then the publishers hold the copyright and make money by selling the journal back to the University libraries (also paid for by public money).

  • Categories
    books events psychology

    Codename ‘Brain Hacks’

    I’m writing a book, with my friend Matt, for O’Reilly, codenamed ‘Brain Hacks’

    The book is a selection of 100 design quirks of consciousness – ways in which constraints from neurobiology or evolution have produced unexpected features in cognition.

    O’Reilly are an American publisher who produce computer books. One series they do, the Hacks series covers tips, tricks, unorthodox methods and functional insights for well known bits of software. This book will be the same, but covering for the bugs and features of the human operating system. A selection of functional anecdotes about the construction of conscious experience and behaviour. A smash and grab on the intellectual goodies of cognitive neuroscience!

    Writing the book is going really well, and we’ve got some great people contributing. It’s great fun putting together practical demonstrations of important computational and cog neuro principles, and it’s even fun being driven slightly mad as I start to notice all the ways in which my experience of the world is constructed from the raw data available to my senses, and the ways my actions are delegated to different, intermeshed, subsystems.

    There’s loads more to say, but for now I’m going to get back to writing the book. Swing over to Matt’s blog if you want to read a bit more about the project – and of course check back here over the next month (until I fly to Burning Man when this blog will go a bit quiet for a couple of weeks).