28 November 2010

Margaret Atwood: the Amoeba's Tale

Robert McCrum

[Margaret] Atwood's pressing interest, as the daughter of an eminent Canadian entomologist, is our planet and its future. Nothing seems more important to her, and since this concern animates almost everything she does, her conversation segues as easily into global warming as Canadian literature: "The threat to the planet is us. It's actually not a threat to the planet – it's a threat to us."

She goes on: "The planet will be OK in its own way. No matter what we do to it, we won't eliminate every last life form from it." As evidence of this, there's the Canadian city of Sudbury, a favourite of Atwood's. When she was growing up in the 1940s, the place was as "barren as the moon" through overlogging, forest fires and relentless mining. "All the rain was acid," she says. It was so bad that "a Sudbury" became a unit of pollution. But then a volunteer programme of regeneration was launched. Earth and seeds were painstakingly stuffed into the cracks between the rocks. Now, "Sudbury has forests again, birds in the trees and fish in the streams." For her, Sudbury, "a symbol of hope", offers a paradigm for the planet.

And so, Atwood continues, with rather bracing realism, "some form of life will remain after us. We shouldn't be saying 'Save the planet'; we should be saying: 'Save viable conditions in which people can live.' That's what we're dealing with here."

Atwood likes to tell the Amoeba's Tale as an illustration of the "magic moment" at which planet earth now finds itself. There's this test tube, and it's full of amoeba food. You put one amoeba in at 12 noon. The amoeba divides in two every minute. At 12 midnight the test tube is full of amoebas – and there's no food left. Question: at what moment in time is the tube half full? Answer: one minute to midnight. That's where we are apparently. That's when all the amoebas are saying: "We are fine. There's half a tube of food left."

"If you don't believe me," Atwood persists, "look at the proposed heat maps for 20, 30, 50 years from now, and see what's drying up. Quite a lot, actually, especially in the equatorial regions and the Middle East, which will be like a raisin. It's become a race against time and we are not doing well. The trouble with politicians [at events like the Copenhagen summit of 2009] is that no one wants to go first, go skinny dipping and take the plunge. Oh, and then you have people arguing about fatuous things like the environment and human rights. Go three days without water and you don't have any human right. Why? Because you're dead. Physics and chemistry are things you just can't negotiate with. These," she concludes with a kind of grim relish, "these are the laws of the physical world."

The Observer 28–Nov–2010 >>>

30 January 2010

The procession* of simulacra

As with Hollywood, so with this golden age of news-o-tainment. People will trust any old nutjob if they somehow inhabit the role, and then they're hooked. There was a long-running series of US pharmaceutical ads that would feature doctors from daytime soaps, who'd begin with the words "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV …" And viewers would flock to buy the medicine. The guys on Fox News aren't newscasters, but they do play them on TV – so we can't be all that surprised when people buy those drugs too.
Marina Hyde
Of course we trust team Fox.
The Guardian 20–Jan–2010 >>>

02 January 2010

The calm & the storm

8.05 pm New Year’s Eve Daylesford

13 December 2009

An ear for a nose (a sound for a smell)

Would anyone who could actually dine on the smell of roast beef not be making a fine saving? [127] ... [127] Allusion to a famous legal tale related by Rabelais: a chef complained that a fool was savouring the smell of his roast beef: the judge ordered the fool to pay for his pleasure with the sound of his coins.
Michel de Montaigne
from ‘III:5 On some lines of Virgil’
The Esssays: A selection. Trans. MA Screech
Penguin 1993, p.309 (fn 127)

12 December 2009


In developing nations, where over half the population requires corrective lenses but often do not have the money to purchase them, Oxford Physics Professor Joshua Silver has a viable solution. Adaptive Eyecare glasses are a liquid-filled alternative whose prescription can be altered at the time of fitting simply by adjusting the amount of injected liquid into the flexible membrane lens. By injecting more or less liquid using the attached syringes, the lenses become more convex (a stronger prescription) or concave (a weaker prescription). The patient, at the time of fitting, simply alters the amount of injected liquid while wearing the glasses, until they can see perfectly. The syringes are then removed, the lenses sealed, and the glasses are ready to wear. Each pair currently sells for just under $20 USD, though Joshua Silver, who is now director of the non-profit Centre for Vision in the Developing World at the University of Oxford, hopes to soon offer them for under $5.

Project H Design
Design Revolution Roadshow
10 December 2009 >>>
Fetishised form facilitates refined function ...

20 November 2009

edge of the lake

I braked the car against the kerb and switched the headlights off and sat with my hands on the wheel. Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without a sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.
Raymond Chandler The Big Sleep
Penguin reissue 2008 p.163
First published Hamish Hamilton 1939