Sunday, 13 June 2010

Some things I thought of

1. Leaving aside the whole [job] thing (square brackets indicate whispering), I'm pretty lucky in how I'm situated at the moment. I love Devon and I love living here, and I also get to visit Cambridge and catch up with the excellent people there, and look at interesting manuscripts. So that on the one hand I get the view of miles of countryside from my desk, and the majority of noises not made by humans, and on the other I can get away and talk to people about interesting things and dip back into the faster pace of Cambridge life, where people spend little if any time talking about TB. Dining off an omelette made from eggs not yet laid that morning vs being able to choose from a huge variety of interesting food shops within a few minutes' walk: watching the buzzards circle up and up on the thermals over the back of our paddock vs market stalls selling cheap paperbacks. It's all good stuff.

2. The human brain! I have mixed feelings about Isaac Newton in general; I was an undergraduate at Trinity, which is full of pictures of him scowling, and I knew he would have disliked me because I'm of the female persuasion. But you have to love him for sticking bodkins in his eyes. (There's a brilliant bit about this in the excellent Neal Stephenson Baroque trilogy.) He did it because a scientist needs to understand his instruments, and for observing the movement of points of light across a wall his eyes were his instruments. If he changed the shape of his eyeballs by slightly compressing them from one side, would his observations change? The biggest scientific instrument of all is of course the human brain, but in eyeball terms it's not perfectly spherical, much as we'd like it to be. This is fascinating stuff. I'd like to know more about it but the problem is that so much of the material looking into this seems to be horrendously naive. I have participated in basic surveys of brain-related things, not to mention those endless online questionaires which offer you entry into a raffle in return for your "feelings" about your mobile phone service etc, and I have tried to give appropriate answers, because it would be arseholey not to try. Now, animal behavourists apparently say that you shouldn't work with cats, they will mess up your data; and essentially in this circumstance I end up being a cat imagining myself as a dog, and answering that way, when in real life the answer to most questions would be about five more questions to try to work out what if anything the question means, or different answers depending on all sorts of criteria which my polite dog self tries to disregard. I can't believe that isn't true of most people, or most educated people with an interest in the subject, or most educated and a bit neurotic people, and frankly there are a lot of us out there, and I'm at least as interested in our brains as brains in general. Maybe the scientific method isn't such a great tool for looking at the human brain, maybe I learn more about it from reading novels than from coming across any number of surveys which report an average 7 percent increase in cheerfulness among people who tried a certain mental exercise, etc. Or maybe I'm just looking at the less effective end of the study of the brain and reading the wrong things. I'm not immediately sure how you'd test the idea that the human brain behaves differently under test conditions, for example. An instance of something I read on this subject is :59 seconds by Prof. Richard Wiseman (which is an excellent pseudonym if it is one). It was readable, and interesting, but as an insight into the human mind it seemed tremendously naive. (On the other hand, if you were looking for an actual self-help book then it might be quite useful as long as you carefully thought yourself into a naive frame of mind beforehand.)

3. The world cup! I don't of my own accord watch football -- when it comes to sport I prefer the clean abstractions of snooker. But I still quite like the World Cup, even though it's inescapable and of no intrinsic interest to me, because it's nice to get to surf on other people's enthusiasms a bit. The one before last I was working on the tills at Marks and Spencer, and it was genuinely really nice the way that during England games the customers would tell you the latest score all unprompted. Management arranged for us to have a TV in the break room, though because M&S is a matriarchy it was usually turned to Big Brother rather than the football matches.

4. Does Mozart help the decomposition of sewage? If so, why? I don't know. The world is very interesting and odd, because at least one of these two things is true: the music of Mozart helps the decomposition of sewage; people really would like to believe that the music of Mozart helps the decomposition of sewage. And the fact that the second is probably true does not in itself mean that the first isn't (though I do fear it).

5. I continue to be challenged about whether or not I am squeamish. We are overrun with rabbits here, they appear at dawn and dusk in huge numbers and eat things, like fluffy locusts. Unfortunately all the local cats are too busy decimating the finches and sparrows to do anything about them, and the foxes prefer the taste of chicken if they can get it. Mr Underhill, the excellent farmer from whom we bought this land before we built the house, occasionally brings one or two dead rabbits over for us, and my mother reluctantly cleans and cooks them. She's not that keen on the cleaning, but it's mostly that she doesn't like eating things with lead shot in, and she won't let my father buy a gun and go out to bag a few himself. However, yesterday at a show she got talking to a man with some kestrels and ferrets, and he's going to give us a quote for coming out and hunting over our fields -- it's one in particular, where my father's botanical specimens are, which needs doing. So: we have too many rabbits; a quick death for the rabbits followed by eating them fits the same moral criteria which I apply to say, lambs; and we would be supporting the sort of skill which I would hate to see lost, and killing the rabbits in one of the ways they're most likely to die anyway, if the buzzards were more efficient. (The buzzards have a good time on road kill and smaller mammals.) But will I be able to go out with ferrets and a hawk and hunt rabbits? I think I will have to, for the sake of my self-respect.

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