Friday 15 September, 2023

Cats circular

Zoombini and Tilly, dozing in anti-clockwise formation.

My post about the passing of Tilly, the second of our brace of beautiful cats, brought a wonderful, heart-warming flood of emails from readers, which we deeply appreciated. On Wednesday evening we held a wake for her (an old Irish tradition, normally reserved for mere humans rather than superior beings like cats) and buried her in the garden alongside her sister, Zoombini, who died on June 10 last year. After we’d done that, I read all of the emails aloud to the assembled company. It seemed a fitting tribute to two felines who never realised how famous they were.

The picture above was inspired by the number of messages which revealed that our cats’ penchant for sleeping in the best circles was much more common than I had realised.

For me, though, the consoling takeaway from losing these two remarkable animals is discovering how many other people also understand the way pets reach parts of the human psyche that nothing else touches.

Quote of the Day

“When novel ideas succeed, they decay into stale clichés.”

  • Henry Farrell and Abe Newman

(I’m reminded of David Runciman’s observation that “clichés are where the truth goes to die”.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Brothers In Arms | Berlin 2007


Triggered by reading a piece from the front lines in Ukraine.

Long Read of the Day

The Transformative, alarming power of Gene Editing

In his recent book, The Coming Wave, Mustafa Suleyman provided a vivid picture of two major technological forces that are bearing down on humanity. One is the so-called ‘AI’ wave; the other is genetic engineering. Crudely put, we humans have devised a powerful technology for messing with (or perhaps augmenting) our brains, plus another one (derived from CRISPR) for messing with our biology. As Edmund Leach, the great anthropologist, might have put it, humans are in the process of becoming gods: and isn’t it time that we thought hard about the responsibilities that accompany that role?

As a tech insider (Suleyman was a co-founder of DeepMind), his account of the potential of AI was predictably good. (I reviewed it for the Observer.) But I had to take his account of the threat/promise of gene-editing on trust, because I know little about the subject.

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining why I found this long, long New Yorker essay by Dana Goodyear so useful. If you read nothing else this weekend, set aside the time to read it.

Books, etc.

Errol Morris’s Believing is Seeing is one of the most interesting books on photography that I’ve read. In it, the distinguished (Oscar-winning) documentary film-maker analyses a number of celebrated photographs that have been taken to represent the truth about something. The book consists of four extensive essays, each of which presents the reader with a puzzle and then examines the relationship between the photographs and the reality they supposedly record.

Morris starts with two photographs taken by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War, and goes on to examine the famous “Hooded man” photograph in Abu Ghraib during the Iraq war, pictures by WPA photographers during the Great Depression and a photograph from the American Civil War. In each case things are not what they seem, and Morris proceeds through an investigation in his characteristic laid-back style. The basic message — captured in the book’s title — is that (as the philosopher Karl Popper famously observed in a different context) “all observation is drenched in theory”. Or, more prosaically, we see in pictures what we’re looking for.

For a nice illustration of Morris’s inimitable style take five minutes to watch this short.

My commonplace booklet


Something I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

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