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a rising mist
The Goodly Mist
A Workingblog for Rob Sherman
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ramon y cajal chick cerebellum diagram

Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s sketch of cells in a chick’s cerebellum; from Estructura de los centros nerviosos de las aves, 1905

Biography remains extremely popular, because humanising the political process is an effective way of communicating it to the reader. The genre favours colourful individuals and those who put themselves against established structures and assumptions. In comparison with narratives of this sort, politics treated as a flexible arrangement for dealing with awkward problems, without many dramatic resolutions, is harder to sell, and those of us who have tried to analyse it that way haven’t been persuasive enough about what we have been doing, and why.

Educating The Utopians, Jonathan Parry, LRB 41 (8), April 2019

bird in space by brancusi

Constantin Brâncusi, Bird In Space

There’s a million lines of code in there… and nowhere in there will you find the word ‘boat’.

Michael Lewis, The New New Thing

vr3 by pippin bar
Pippin Barr, v r 3

“The irony of software designers tricking us into believing water is real by observing nature more carefully than we often do, is quite amusing and perhaps a sign of the times, or things to come.”

Tristan Gooley, How To Read Water

Today marks the anniversary of my discovery that gorse flowers, if ground against the tongue, start to taste of prawn mayonnaise after ten seconds or so.

charles minard diagramIt’s been on my mind a lot recently that an equally valid way to study, or to plot, History – if we are really interested in the data of it, as well as its woollier qualities – is to frame it not in terms of years or populations or politics or trading levels, but in terms of energy. Beneath all of these vectors which historians study, this is really the basal unit; not the year, or the currency, or manpower, or the dollar or the groat, but the Calorie. It might save a lot of arguments, and conference expenses, and samovars of cooling coffee on trestle tables, if we can agree that all human endeavour, social interactions, religious movements, massacres, migrations – from the national to the individual, from the great sweep to the tiny gesture – can be formulated in terms of the energy required to warm a kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.

I was never a good physics student at school. In fact, my teacher actively disliked me, as he thought that I was somehow being willfully incompetent in his classes, rather than suffering from a simpler, garden variety of incompetence. However, I still remember the principle of the conservation of energy, mainly because it didn’t require me to memorise any equations. Energy in the universe cannot be destroyed, but only transferred into another form. It’s disquieting, the more and more I think about it, how anything that I learnt in my history classes at school, and in my work since, could be described by such a transfer, even if it cannot be precisely measured as such. The most obvious example that springs to mind is the adage ‘an army marches on its stomach’, and immediately Charles Minard’s famous carte figurative springs to mind, showing the strength of Napoleon’s army diminishing as it marched to (and, barely, from) Moscow in 1812 and 1813. It’s almost a direct visual representation of this principle; as they move across Eastern Europe, you can practically see the French soldiers’ thermodynamics, the numbers and rates stacked against them. They’re expending heat into the cold Russian air, leaking warmth as surely as blood from their mottled legs, far more quickly than they can intake it from salted pork or, towards the end, conifer resin.

It disquiets me further and further to find more and more examples, and how I cannot think of one historical arc, system, migration or change that does not fit the mold. I suppose I’m being bloody-minded, but why not this, rather than anything else? I see it in the pursuit of cholesterol out of Africa, hundreds of thousands of years ago; in the sickening radiation of the Roman Empire’s trade networks; the lunches hurriedly imbibed in the months before the Peterloo Massacre; in the burning of witches at Würzburg. Why can’t we ask where that energy, those Joules, have gone, after they converted and dissipated up into the open Bavarian air, and where else they have been used since?

“I should not have been surprised by Constable or Rubens. This is what the great artists manage. They flatter us, by observing better than others and then speaking to each of us as individuals and in language that we worry we may be the only ones left caring for.”

Tristan Gooley, How To Read Water

Sticking my head out from the bedroom window every morning, currently; as I’ve isolated that sensation-moment, when the rods and cones in my eyes first rinse together on the daylight and the wind, as the single best element of camping, and one that I can replicate every day if I want. Yesterday I heard the first woodpeckers of the year, through the closest thing they have to a song. That rapid percussion on the tree trunks of the valley walls is like the sound of a dawn doorbell, and all that could imply, with its harsher wavelengths and connotations trimmed away. There were two drilling a second or so apart, one slightly north of the house up the valley and the other slightly south. They rested at each other’s on-beat, though I have no reason to think it was any form of communication; just one of those happy, human-scale emergences that means absolutely nothing, and yet which I cannot – actually, synaptically cannot – ignore.

I have recently learned that a woodpecker, when not using its long, genuflecting tongue, hanks it tightly around and around its own skull to cushion it against the impact of the drilling. In the timbre of these two persisting, I could hear the timbers; one must have been pecking at a thinner, or deader, trunk than the other, as the tone was slightly higher. I had been asleep when they had started, so there was no way of telling who had begun, and whether I should be hearing this exchange as high low high low high low or low high low high low high. I managed to isolate each configuration, and hear them independently, and they sounded like two quite different sorts of conversation; one a mournful confirmation of some very bad news, so bad that the receiver has to ask, again and again, if it is true; and the other an argument, neverending, each party refusing to listen to the other; like those occasional, screaming, three-in-the-morning exchanges between the couple who live three doors down from us.

A handy little driblet of JQuery and CSS here: on a few of my websites, I have .scrollableelements with more information than can fit within a single browser height, but which need to scroll independently of the page’s main content. Often, just setting the overflow to scroll, and using the browser’s default scrollbar, will look clunky, and be unnecessary; so I’ve been trying to find a slightly neater way of showing both that the element is scrollable (or, that there is more information available that I do not want the user to miss) and to give some indication of where, in that screed, the user is currently located.

The method I’ve settled on is a little indicator just underneath the scroll – a #downarrow, for example – which shows that there is more to read, but which disappears when you reach the bottom of the element. This is easily done in JQuery by checking, every time the user scrolls that element, the current bottom edge of the element in pixels (scrollTop() + innerHeight) against the total scrollHeight of the element. The resulting CSS animation makes the disappearance a little smoother and plainer than an abrupt vanishing, which can often look like a bug. I found that, for some reason, just checking against the scrollHeight on its own didn’t work – I could never scroll the element all the way to its full, pixel-perfect bottom, and so the disappearance code never ran. Adding the – 5 seemed to solve this, meaning that the arrow disappears just before you reach the bottom of the scrollable area.

I have no idea if this performs well. I haven’t noticed any bottlenecks in the browser performance; I imagine because the code only runs when the element is scrolled. I also know that I’m inviting the Golden Invective of web development – the one that lashes against the removal of functionality the sake of for aesthetics – but I’ve yet to have anybody tell me that it’s awkward, or that they don’t understand it, or that they need to plot exactly where they are in their reading. By the same token, I wouldn’t recommend this method for lengthy passages of text.


//JQuery
$(document).ready(function() {
$(".scrollableelement").bind('scroll', function () {
if ($(this).scrollTop() + $(this).innerHeight() >= $(this)[0].scrollHeight - 5) {
$('#downarrow').removeClass('visible').addClass('invisible');
} else {
$('#downarrow').removeClass('invisible').addClass('visible');
}
});
});


/* CSS */
.visible {
animation-name: fadein;
animation-duration: 0.3s;
opacity: 1;
}
.invisible {
animation-name: fadeout;
animation-duration: 0.3s;
opacity: 0;
pointer-events: none;
}
@keyframes fadein {
0% {
opacity: 0;
}
100% {
opacity: 1;
}
}
@keyframes fadeout {
0% {
opacity: 1;
}
100% {
opacity: 0;
}
}

“The only thing that bound us together was this belief: in every other country they eat unspeakable food; worship gods more see-through than glass; string together only the most meaningless syllables, like goo-goo-goo-goo-goo-goo-goo; are warlike but not noble; do not help the dead cross in the proper boats; do not send the correct incense up to the wide blue nostrils; crawl with whatever crawls; do not love their children, not the way we do; bare the most tempting body parts and cover the most mundane; cup their penises to protect them from supernatural forces; their poetry is piss; they do not respect the moon; slice the little faces of our familiars into the stewpot.”

Patricia Lockwood, The Communal Mind

list of English folk beings

The Denham Tracts, James Hardy (eds.), The Folklore Society, 1895, vol. 2, pp. 76-80.

I had to do some thinking, in a professional sense, yesterday: and these days (I’m not sure when the turn came) that requires its own calendar notification. I gave myself two hours, a scrap of folded paper, and the five miles along the craning turn of Swansea Bay; as far from the town centre to Mumbles and back as I could make it.

As I had some new walking boots to train to my feet, I went out beyond the strandline to the tidal mud, which allowed me to cut a straight hypotenuse rather than following the shaking curve of the Oystermouth Road at the edge of the beach. The sound of the road came back to me weirdly off the water. A man with a metal detector, and a dog that (I’m sorry, it did) looked like a spade, like it might be called Spade, or Cutter, were perusing divots of cut sand closer to the waves. The mud and sediment here, for a good mile stretch, is starting to compact into pavements of stone, though the sea is pulling away hanks of it as quick as it can harden. A little egret went about the rockpools, stepping over its own legs and expending fruitless calories to stay three hundred yards ahead of me at all times. I thought my new boots were leaking cold water, but it was right at the edge of the sensation: I think it was heat I was feeling, the first volcanism of new blisters.

For the first time I noticed how many thousands of lugworm casts there were, stretching away from me, and got something like the willies at how many were working, touching themselves, displacing, beneath me. I think I could hear them, in the way you can hear barnacles seemingly gasping for air in their millions on a rock. I reached the Clyne River, were it braids and then undoes itself over the sand coming out of the conifer channels at Blackpill, and found it too deep to cross, even in my new boots. The bridge was back up by the road, and it was unacceptable to me to go close to it, and to hear it. So I went back to the County Hall, and climbed its concrete, amphitheatre breakwater back into the town.


Bill Marsh, Landscapes, 2002

The relationship between remembering and forgetting is, paradoxically, related to the relationship between memorials and ruins. Novelist Robert Musil published an essay on ‘Monuments’ in 1936, noting how much of his native city of Vienna was crowded with memorials to soldiers, statesmen and illustrious figures, forgotten ever after. ‘There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument,’ he wrote. Ruins, by contrast, are a reagent of memory, their incomplete, fractured elements demanding to be visualised or imagined whole again. Ruins invoke empathy and the free play of historical query, where memorials close the lid firmly and decisively on the past.

Ken Worpole, The New English Landscape

rhossili and worms head, gower

This late/early winter, in lieu of having much else to do, I’ve been trying to become a better naturalist. It may seem an odd time of year to be out looking for plants and animals, but it’s ideal for the beginner. With many animals hibernating, most of the insects dead, underground or in torpor, and the perennial plants stripped of anything bolshy or distracting, there’s far less room for mistake or misidentification. When you don’t yet know what it is you are looking for, winter in Britain presents a bit of a sandpit for your early efforts: all simple lines, quiet spaces and the barest essentials to play with. Of course, winter in Britain is not dead, or inactive, or silent, if you have an experienced eye; but I don’t, and pretending that there are only about six species of identifiable tree, bird and mammal has its utility in getting me going. It reminds me of learning the alphabet at school, where the letters were revealed to us in packs of three, and we had a chance to get to know them properly before anything was complicated further.

Out I go, then: with the aid of the Collins Fungi Guide; the Biodiversity Information Service‘s invaluable winter identification courses held in Brecon; a pair of underlubricated Boots binoculars; and a naturalist girlfriend who already elongates any walk into a multi-stage, bent-backed, cooing affair, fawning happily over stinkhorn fungus in the way other people treat with small dogs and children; I’m starting to feel like I am getting Britain in winter under my belt.

Of all the things in the world, it reminds me of when I was doing work experience for a law firm in the middle of London. This involved very little clerical work, and rather a lot of errands: mostly, I seem to remember, taking sealed packages of x-rays between multiple London hospitals on behalf of one of the senior partners, who (judging by his face when I returned with a fresh manila folder at five o’clock each day) increasingly disliked the news he was receiving. I was dispensed into London, with a Zones 1-6 travelcard, for seven hours or so a day; spending most of that time travelling along Tube lines, and through stations, that I had barely even heard of, despite living my entire life to date in south London. I kept coming up staircases and escalators out onto streets that I did not recognise, and without any landmarks to guide me, before popping back down into the darkness only to emerge again at some other isolated waypoint; like a submarine without sonar, trying to make its way through an icepack. Slowly, however, I started to take the Tube less, walking most of the way between my stops; and gradually in this way I began to knit London together. This continues even today, when I return to the city for work, or to visit friends; last week, as it was so unseasonably balmy, I decided to walk from Charing Cross to Shoreditch for a meeting, cutting a long axis through Holborn, Chancery Lane and Hatton Garden, Farringdon, the Barbican, behind Old Street where I used to work, through Bunhill Fields Cemetery. It’s nice to start to feel the whole rhizome of London, the whole interwoven tuber of it, rather than diving in between its Balkans. Similarly, I’m starting to feel that the free-floating survivals of outdoor knowledge that have remained from my childhood – what my grandmother told me about dockleaves, songs from primary school about the robin and the holly, Cub Scout lectures about hoarfrost – is starting to coagulate, to grow, and form a (still quite threadbare) mat of associations. When you go at these things willingly, and every day, no piece of knowledge is divorced from any other; you make lashings between ideas, and facts, and impressions, battening it all down, gluing it into serviceable place.

It also gets a lot quicker, as you go: where some acts of identification used to be a real labour to perform, now they can be passed over unconsciously, so well-set is the knowledge they require; and they can form stepping stones, and assumed foundations, for more complicated activities. I’m starting to get to know the jizz (and there really isn’t, unfortunately, a better word for it) of not just certain birds, but trees and moss and water and geology and tracks and musk, so that I can install them into my first impressions of a new environment almost without thinking. Sitting in my parent’s back garden last weekend, surrounded by bare-limbed trees (in strange combination with a February heatwave in the high twenties), I could tell from the steel-blue, hairless tinge of the long trunks, with a gestalt airiness about the lower halves that I didn’t exactly look at, but just sort of incorporated, that the woodland was mostly beech, with some ash. I can now spot that tree’s dog-nose-black-and-wet buds from hundreds of metres away, especially against a pale sky, where their regular spacing on the twig have the unmistakably made look of a television aerial. At the moment, the catkins on the hazels are long and dusky, and peering into any wood I don’t even need to see a hazel tree directly, on its own (as in a reference book) to know what it is, and that it is there. Just by being present in the general tumble of things, they lend the airs of the wood a quality, finely chopping the green light like herb, creating patches of gauzy bokeh here and there; and a vertical noisiness, indistinct, that makes you think of indistinct things, like severity and looming; all lent by the unseen, but sensed, close-packed staves of a hazel coppice somewhere in front of you. Unfortunately I’m avoiding hazel at the moment, as I have found them slightly revolting ever since my girlfriend, who spent several months in Belize working at a primate sanctuary a few years ago, told me that the catkins reminded her of how the spider monkeys would while away the afternoons in their cages, twirling their dangling, velveted clitorises between their sofa-leather fingers.

It’s lending a real joy to a time of year that otherwise seems to plod along for far longer than it has any right to. Today, I saw my first clutch of turnstones, picking for sandfly and silverfish between the concrete slabs of the Tawe Barrage here in Swansea. It took my entire lunchbreak to pull myself away from them. However, despite all this I am finding that even with the slightest bit of knowledge, and interest, in nature, the act of going for a walk can never be relaxing again. Like a literary agent who struggles to read for pleasure, I’m starting to notice that when out and about I’m a bit feverish, every sensor wired and fused to find those things that I do know, and to notice those things that I do not. My deepest brain is both enjoying the patterns that it identifies, and churning them over and over, testing them and seeking to expand them, struggling to remember them so that they can be noted down and drawn up when I get home. I’m forever straining to identify that bird I just heard, or to find scarlet elfcap in the bark litter, or wondering why this stand of alder is seemingly growing so far from any water. Despite being deeply pleasurable, I do sometimes find myself wishing that I could go back to complete ignorance, even if only for a day. I sometimes think about the times when I didn’t know anything, didn’t try to know anything, and was content in it: when the only bird that made itself known to me was the smoker’s cough of a wood pigeon; when the different barks and birdsongs and contours and lichens could form an indistinguishable deep-pile for my thoughts, rather than occupying them entirely in their distinguishability. I used to tell myself that the birds sang, and that I was there, and that was sufficient, and I went on; now, I know that the robin only sings low in the tree, and that they fight with the tits for dominance; that as I move through the wood the birds are not singing for me, to chorus my own idling; that with even an amateur eye you can see them flinging off, to the next tree, away from me always, leaving an ovoid gap in the birdsong; and that it is only after I have passed on that the whole, unbelievable, social network starts up again.

max ernst der wald

Max Ernst, Forest and Dove

“Ticket to Ride is essentially about connecting points on a graph. All games are ultimately abstract simulations, although sometimes the thing simulated is itself abstract. Computer gaming has been going in two primary directions as of late: in action games, towards greater simulation of reality (or projected reality), and in casual and role-playing games, towards lip-service to realism while grafting on increasingly arbitrary rule systems.

In the first case this has produced first-person shooters with complicated physics systems, and in the second, quest adventures where the “fighting” is done with unusual mechanisms, such as a Tetris-like puzzle game. The first goal is obviously a dead-end in the long run (where do we go after simulating reality is done well enough, or proves impossible to advance?), but the second could be seen as a sign of design decadence. Theoretically the act of playing Tetris, or a collectable card game, or Tower Defense, is no further removed from the physical act of combat as choosing options from a menu, but practically something is lost as game systems become ever more abstract.”

John Harris, Game Design Essentials: 20 Real World Games

unica zurn painting

Untitled, Unica Zürn, 1960s
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