Archive for the ‘From base’ Category

I’ve been interested for a long time in the way everything is connected. Douglas Adams’ “Total Perspective Vortex” extrapolated from a small piece of fairy cake to reconstruct the entire universe, complete in every molecule. You could start with anything (I always cite Mahler’s 6th Symphony) and, beginning with one small question about one small part of that thing, from connection to connection work your way outwards and eventually reach the total sum of human knowledge and experience. Sometimes, as we look around us and see all the pieces reaching out to each other, the world looks like a maelstrom of whirling connections. Yesterday one flashed past that I thought I’d write down as a little example.

When I turn on the engine in the van the radio comes on automatically and I, automatically, reach to turn it off since it is usually playing some dreadful CD that Debbie has left in. Yesterday I reached to turn it off but stopped because it was playing radio, and a song I liked. “Mahler?” You ask? No. Cyndi Lauper. Girls just want to have fun. I can like that as well as Mahler, can’t I? Well anyway, that was what happened, and I drove off happily listening to Cyndi Lauper. Hadn’t heard it for years. Later that day a student submitted their Inspirational Landscapes project online for me to mark. (By coincidence, I had mentioned my “extrapolating from Mahler” project and read to them the bit about the fairy cake. I even read them some Proust, who had a fairy cake all of his own, extrapolating from a dunked madeleine to a lifetime’s memories.  I didn’t play them Cyndi Lauper. The student submitting the work was the only person in the class who could count the beat to Solsbury Hill (don’t you love that 7-time beat?). But that isn’t the connection). Part of the student’s submission was a YouTube video that they had created, and when the video ended, YouTube automatically (no, things happening automatically isn’t the connection) YouTube automatically offered to play me another video uploaded by the same student (here it comes), and the video – nothing to do with the Geography project – was that student playing keyboard and singing… “Girls Just Want to have Fun”.

Writing this post, and thinking of the student who unwittingly inspired it I am reminded how much of what I’ve written here and elsewhere has been inspired by my students, usually without them knowing it. Pasted to the wall of my downstairs toilet as wallpaper amongst the mouldering front pages of many of my papers is the front page of an article I wrote for the journal Progress in Physical Geography in 1997. The article was about how much progress was being made in the science of glaciers and how much new information was being published every year. I started the article with an anecdote about a student. That student, in response to a start-of-course questionnaire in which I asked the group what they wanted to learn – what they wanted to know – had written “I want to know it all”, and I took that as a starting point from which I expanded to, and expounded upon, a broad sweep of information and the unlikelihood than anybody would ever “know it all”. The student who wanted to know it all was called Cara. I had never heard that name before I encountered that student. At the end of the section of the paper where I told her story I mentioned some obscure data set and said “perhaps I should send that data to the girl who wanted to know it all”. Reading that again now I realise she almost certainly never saw that paper or realised that her quick comment on a small questionnaire in a big class of students would lead to something being published in an article, let alone that it would still be fresh and relevant in my personal maelstrom of connections 15 years later. And that’s the starting point for another project: we can never know what will stick. We never know what impacts the smallest things we do might have. We never know who notices what. This year’s student will probably never guess that I saw her singing Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Perhaps I should send her a link to this blog.


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A recurring theme of this blog has been that what we see out of the window depends only partly on what is out there and partly on what we have previously pasted onto the inside of the glass. Little surprise, then, that on reading the first couple of pages of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” I was struck by their relevance to some of the other things that are going through my mind at this point as I embark on a process of what I am calling i-simplification at the start of a new year, and as I position myself for  the final approach to my 50th birthday. The i-simplification is a simple de-cluttering of my online and electronic environments. Over the ten years or so that I have been keeping multiple websites, writing blogs, maintaining carefully isolated identities etc,  I have moved deep into the dark territory that lies beyond overwhelming. Many websites, many identities, many empires connected by links that only I can see. So I have taken a machete and am starting to hack away at some of the overgrowth. Identities: cut down to just three or four. FourSquare and similar distractions: gone completely. WordPress: cut back to just this one blog. Only drops in the ocean, I know, but a gesture, at least. I think the i-simplification is just part of a typical New Year feeling and a logical consequence of a broader decision to sort out some of the activity-clutter that plays havoc with my largely futile attempts at time management. In the untitled opening section of “Invisible Cities” Calvino writes of there being in the lives of Emperors a desperate moment “when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin… that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.” This moment comes after the pride in the extension of territories, and after the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up thought of knowing and understanding them. Then comes the emptiness, then that desperate moment. Then the discovery of the tracery of the subtle pattern. So my thought upon reading that opening section, while hacking my way to i-Simplification and my 50th birthday, concerns on the one hand (while perhaps in the back of my mind touching upon camels and needles) the issue of how pride in the boundless extension of our territory may obscure the vision of that subtle tracery which may elude the termites and on the other hand the way that what we read depends only partly (perhaps very little) on what is actually written.

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When I first had a web site, and wrote “open letters” on it that were a kind of blog, nobody else I knew did the same, and people thought it was kind of weird. Obviously I ignored them and carried on doing it in my own way just for fun. This is my 10th year online with an unbroken history of blogging and blogging-by-other-names, and I just noticed that a whole bunch of other people from where I work have web pages and blogs (it’s so easy nowadays!). Looking around their pages, I started to think that they put mine to shame. Theirs are so… plein de poissons: so full of stuff. They have real content. Ian’s is full of rocks and seismic profiles and information and detail. Katherine’s is full of chemistry. Rob’s has so many opinions on so many interesting things. Partly because mine has grown up in a bit of a vacuum and never been out much, a bit like Kaspar Hauser it has ended up, well, different from other people’s. By coincidence, I think I may have met a dog called Kaspar today, which may be why I thought of Kaspar Hauser just now. As usual, I’m not entirely sure. I’m also not sure that meeting a dog called Kaspar would get a mention on my colleagues’ blogs. In the grand scheme of things my encounter with Kaspar should probably have been entirely ephemeral.

Ian’s rocks are of great moment. They are clearly important to a great many people who follow his blog, and are probably what Antoine de Saint-Exupery might have referred to as “matters of consequence”. Just as Saint-Exupery’s Geographer declines to record The Little Prince’s flower because it is ephemeral, perhaps I should be more thoughtful about what deserves to go into my blog. Perhaps I should confine myself to matters of consequence and stop recording ephemeral flowers. My problem is that ephemeral flowers seem to me to be matters of consequence. ephemeral flower

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It’s a Complicated World

The world is a complicated place. That’s easy to say. I could hear people saying that to me when I was a first-year undergraduate. I could even say it myself. But I didn’t really see then how complicated the world is. The older you get, the more you see, the more complicated it becomes. And so we have schemes that help us to make sense of the world. Ways of organising all those complicated things and ideas and places and history and uncertainties and contradictions. Science is one scheme that gives us a way of making sense of the world.  Religion is another. There are lots to choose from. And you don’t just have to choose one. You can mix and match. You can make your scheme, your system, your way of looking at the world as complex as you like. It can be really complicated, if you want. Of course that might defeat your original goal of having a system that cut through the complexity, if that’s what you were looking for. On the other hand perhaps you were just looking for a scheme that recognised the complexity. Perhaps you just wanted to see it and acknowledge it. Perhaps then you don’t need a scheme, you need a vision.  And then everything becomes much more simple. The world turns out not to be so complicated after all. The world is a pretty straightforward place.

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“…getting to know Proust is not the acquisition of a bundle of facts, it is familiarity with a world of the imagination in which one gradually feels at home…”
Richard Bales, Introduction, The Cambridge Companion to Marcel Proust.

Getting to know Physical Geography is not the acquisition of a bundle of facts, it is familiarity with a world of insight and appreciation in which one gradually feels at home. Learning Physical Geography is a bit like getting to know Proust. Or perhaps that’s just me. Richard Bales, in the chapter from which I took the quotation at the head of this post, goes on to say that getting to know Proust is “the growing realisation that humanity is subject to an enormous range of vicissitudes, but obedient also to recurrent laws. It is the recognition that life, drab though vast swathes of it may be, can be transfigured in rare moments of insight. It is above all the acknowledgement that what is humble and what is sublime cohabit in indissoluble symbiosis. For if there is just one lesson one retains from a reading of Proust it is that what seems trivial is often what is most significant and revelatory.” I need to think about this in the context of Physical Geography. Of course, getting to know anything is about becoming familiar with its world, not just about compiling the bundle of its facts. This isn’t just about Physical Geography. But it can be about Physical Geography, if Physical Geography is what you are getting to know. Subject to enormous variability but obedient to recurrent laws. The ordinary transfigured in moments of insight. The mundane and the extraordinary in indissoluble symbiosis. Yes, that’s Physical Geography. But isn’t it everything? And isn’t that the point?

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National Guitar

For years, Paul Simon’s line about the “Mississippi delta, shining like a national guitar” had me thinking about the idea of a guitar for the nation, represented somehow in the shining delta. I could picture the delta from the air, or from space, glinting in the sun. I couldn’t quite see the shape of a guitar in the shape of the delta, but never mind. Lyrics can be obscure, and that’s OK, I thought.

I didn’t know then that there actually was such a thing as a “National” guitar: a type of guitar called a National. I don’t know much. But I discovered it through the Pete Atkin song National Steel. They’re metal: shiny. They glint in the sunlight. Like a delta. The Mississippi delta shines like a National guitar. I think there may be one on the album cover of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (but be careful, you really shouldn’t trust me on that).

It happens a lot, and I don’t mind, that I discover that whole chunks of what I think are actually based on ignorance, misunderstanding, inattention, deafness or stupidity. It’s reassuring to see that it happens so much to me, because that means it isn’t so shocking when I see it happening with other people. They’re fools, but that’s OK: so am I.

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I asked a group of Geography students this week about climbing mountains. Most of them said that they did it for the view from the top, that they wouldn’t bother doing it in the fog, and that if there was a choice between an easy path and a hard path they would take the easy path. I was surprised.  I climb a mountain for the activity of climbing the mountain.  To “engage with” the mountain. If the mountain is foggy, that’s fine, we’ll enjoy the mountain in fog. If there’s a challenging path probably it will give me more, so I’m happy to check that one out. The Road Less Travelled. A  mountain in the fog is still a  mountain. I was thinking later about what they’d said, and  about our motivations for other things.  Using their logic I guess they’d assume I was writing this blog so people could read it. Well I don’t think that’s so, either.  As far as I know probably nobody but me reads this. I write it to engage with the material, not for the outcome of it being there to be read.  Why do I put it online then? Writing something that might be read by somebody else, even if that’s not terribly likely, makes you write differently, just as being forced into rules writing a poem in a particular style forces you to write differently. There is some kind of inspirational constraint at work.  So it being there to be read does make a difference, but it’s not the point. The fact that there may be a view from the top does make a difference, but it’s not the point.

I remember Richard Feynman talking about sending off a letter, and he referred to sending it off “into the void”. That’s a bit what this is like,  sending stuff out into the void.

So I’m sitting here on the shore, or on the mountain top, in the fog, looking out into the void. Ideas float in, and if you don’t catch them they’re gone again. If you do catch them they change shape as soon as they come out of the fog and into your hand. You can’t catch them. So you sit in the fog feeling them slip through your fingers. The students didn’t ask (they weren’t that kind of group), but if they had done, that would be a fair answer to “So, why do you climb mountains?” Perhaps I climb them to feel them slip away through my fingers.

Of course it’s not true. But that is one of the constraints of writing online.

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