To do, without limits

The aspirations of a scientist, 300 years ago:

The Prolongation of Life.
The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
The Art of Flying.
The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
The Transmutation of Metalls.
The makeing of Glass Malleable.
The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
The making Armor light and extremely hard.
The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
A perpetuall Light.
Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.

Robert Boyle‘s to-do/wish list, most of which aspirations can now be ticked off. A pretty mind-blowing collection, and the inclusion of what amounts to “scratch-and-sniff” is just awesome.

An “alkaest” is apparently a universal solvent and was much sought after by alchemists. Quite how something which dissolved absolutely everything else would exist and be controlled is a problem which no doubt great minds spent great time mulling.

I wonder whether the Egyptian Electus (medicinal paste with sweeteners to hide the taste for the purposes of oral consumption) was nepenthe: 1580, nepenthes, from Gk., from ne- “no, not” (see un-) + penthos “grief” (related to pathos). A drug of Egypt mentioned in the “Odyssey” as capable of banishing grief or trouble from the mind. The -s is a proper part of the word, but was likely mistaken in Eng. as a plural affix and dropped.

There’s more, including a picture of the original handwritten list, here, at the Royal Society website. It’s their 350th anniversary this year I discover, very belatedly.

Most of the list is obviously the aspiration to improve on an existing technology like making Armor light and extremely hard, better drugs (medicinal and recreational) etc. But The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only? That’s pretty far out. It’s delightful that none of his desires involves more efficient weapons and this list is notable for what looks like, from here, its overall emphasis on the betterment of the human condition.

Of course Attaining Gigantick Dimensions is something many still unsuccessfully aspire to, judging by my spam folder.

The Samaritans

I went to an introductory evening at the Samaritans last night in what I hope is the beginning of the process of becoming a volunteer, encouraged by a friend who already gives time to them.

The more I find out about this organisation the more I realise what an extraordinary range of vital services it offers, not just for those experiencing emotional distress but also as a resource for those concerned about someone they know in such a situation as well as its training, campaigning and de-stigmatising roles.

I was anxious before I left. Worried, I think, about my ability to be with others’ emotional pain. Am I strong enough? Feeling defensive. How much information about myself and my experiences might I be required to reveal? Of course the answer to that is just as much as I am comfortable with. And the event was fascinating. Seven people of various ages and backgrounds with widely differing reasons for wanting to give time. Two volunteers to guide us through an informative video and discussion afterwards.

It’s a path I want very much to pursue. The aim of enabling an entirely non-judgemental space – through active listening – in which it may be possible for individuals to be empowered to discover the resources to take control of their lives is very exciting.

The next step is a three hour (gulp!) individual assessment to judge suitability for training. The volunteer training course, which lasts a number of weeks, is apparently very resource intensive (the Samaritans is a charity, of course) and it’s important to screen candidates carefully. It’s quite common for volunteers to have a background of having experienced mental distress or suicidal feelings so if I’m not ready for it yet I’m sure that will become clear at the assessment session.

Louis Vuitton and a modest proposal to end the crisis in Darfur

Only yesterday Hg and I were talking of Jonathan Swift‘s pamphlet A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick. This classic work of satirical economic genius can be downloaded for free as an ebook or audiobook.

We were saying, Hg and I, how relevant Swift’s work is today, and nodding sagely over our coffees, as one does. Or, to be accurate, I nodded over my coffee and he over his glass of water.

This morning I discovered just how hip and happening Swift remains. After all, you can’t get much more hip and happening than Louis Vuitton, now can you. Here, as exhibit A, is the current picture on the international page of their website. I record it below merely because the levels of their hipness and happeningness are such that their images are probably frequently changed.

luxury leather luggage, French fashion designer

See the skull there on the table? we’ll be coming back to that later. But for now note the hint of Africana in the zebra-skin patterning of the shirt.

Louis Vuitton seems to have an affinity with Africa. Perhaps the best exposition of this is my friend Koranteng‘s post Bags and Stamps which explores, in all its glory, the iconography of this particular desirable designer article:

The significance of the logo or stamp of approval is iconic in expressing authenticity, legitimacy and belonging, demarcating the boundaries separating countries at once, and luxury status symbols delineating the rich from the poor.

That was a year ago and, as we know, fashions change fast. However Louis Vuitton’s interest in things African has not waned. The company recently discovered an image called Simple Living made by Dutch artist Nadia Plesner and sold on t-shirts and posters to raise awareness of the Save Darfur campaign. All the profits from their sale go to Divest For Darfur:

poster.jpg (JPEG Image, 1181x1589 pixels) - Scaled (46%)

My illustration Simple Living is an idea inspired by the medias constant cover of completely meaningless things. My thought was: Since doing nothing but wearing designer bags and small ugly dogs appearantly is enough to get you on a magasine cover, maybe it is worth a try for people who actually deserves and needs attention.

If you can’t beat them, join them. This is why I have chosen to mix the cruel reality with showbiz elements in my drawing.

The aphorism “if you can’t beat them, join them” is obviously not one to which the legal team of Louis Vuitton subscribes and in a letter to Nadia the director of the company’s intellectual property team requires that Nadia confirm by return fax that she will discontinue distribution and promotion of the products.

Although we applaud your efforts to raise awareness and funds to help Darfur, a most worthy cause, we cannot help noticing that the design of the Simple Living Proucts includes the reproduction of a bag infringing on Louis Vuitton’s Intellectual Property Rights, in particular the Louis Vuitton Monogram Multicolore Trademark to which it is confusingly similar. We are surprised of [sic] such a promotion of a counterfeit bag.

Nadia is refusing to cease and desist and now apparently faces a lawsuit filed by Louis Vuitton claiming more than $20,000 per day if she continues with the project.

Clearly Louis Vuitton have made a regrettable blunder. An individual art student is quite obviously not going to be in a position to provide them with the $20,000 per day they require. This is where my modest proposal might help. Not only will it furnish the company with the income it obviously so desperately needs but it will also, at the same time, end the crisis in Darfur!

Consider these two facts. Firstly the fact that, as book-binders have long known, human skin makes excellent leather:

They found human leather to be relatively cheap, durable and waterproof.

The second fact is that there’s already a developed market for human skin luggage products! This particular fabric is of course merely a pale and man-manufactured (as opposed to grown) imitation of the real thing, comparable to a cheap plastic knock-off of a genuine Louis Vuitton bag.

The war in Darfur is an ethnic crisis with predominantly nomadic Arab militias tacitly backed by the Sudanese Government against a group of non-Arab, pastoralist ethnic groups. So if the non-Arab ethnic groups no longer existed the conflict would be resolved, right? Right!

And what better way to bring about this happy state of peace than to find a really good use for all the children which would take them right out of the unpleasant conflict zone! Their parents could be paid to look after them carefully until the optimum age, taking care they don’t get burnt, scarred or in any other way sustain serious dermal damage. Then the older generation could use the payments to retire somewhere well away from the stresses of armed conflict.

It is almost as if the geniuses at Louis Vuitton have been planning for the solution I have proposed. Does the small skull in the picture on their web page hint at the future? For already they have a range of goods in “Nomade” leather which is, appropriately enough, of a pale brown colour. All they require now is a complementary range of genuinely agriculturalist origin and a delightful contrasting dark brown colour. The name for the new range is easy too. “Anthropodermic” is too clinical-sounding despite the benefit of accuracy. However the term “Pastorale” with its echoes of classical music and its terminal “e” mirroring that of the French word nomade would be ideal and bring to mind associations with the great corpus of delightful European pastoral literature as well as referencing its pastoralist origins.

Since the company is clearly extremely protective of its intellectual property rights it seems appropriate to prevent any unscrupulous tanners getting their hands on the LV hides so I further suggest that young children are early tattooed with the famous monogram, or the Louis Vuitton “stamp” used to such effect on the plaid bag pictured above, to prevent any use by a rival firm. The tattoos would, of course, have to be quite small to allow for subsequent growth but I have no doubt that dermatological research will provide the appropriate tattoo dimensions to result in patterning after the tanning process of exactly the right size.

Zimbabwe elections watch

For all the people who’ve landed on the previous post looking for news and found it utterly unhelpful and uninformative in terms of what’s actually happening, I do apologize, and some links that might be useful:

Global Voices Online Zimbabwe stories

Google News search for Zimbabwe

Google Blog Search for Zimbabwe

Technorati Search for Zimbabwe

Here’s a combination of the above (minus the Google Blog Search which wouldn’t work for some reason) all spitting out into a single RSS feed via Yahoo pipes:


If you want to grab, clone, expand on or otherwise employ this pipe please feel free.

Content organisation (overload?)

I’ve finally set up a tumblr blog having been seduced by hydrgnc. This means I can quickly and easily post small gobbets of all sorts of (even more) inane stuff for which would be irritating to make an entire blog post.

How is this different from twittering, you might ask. Well, you can’t update it via text message from a mobile phone (quick and cheap) nor does it have the socially interactive, community and chatty aspects which I enjoy more than any other social site I’m a member of (an experience much enhanced by the wide range of notification applications available as well as optional SMS updates).

However you can swiftly and simply post all manner of digital content – video, audio, photo – quickly and easily as well as, of course, text. It’s also possible to upload pictures taken on a mobile phone using a designated e-mail address, but only if your handset and service support it.

My problem is that in terms of the web I’m a convergence junkie. Always have been. This means I want one small device (a bit of hardware) to do everything imaginable (run lots of different applications quickly and easily and in an integrated manner as well as take pictures, videos and record audio) (yes, my iPhone lust is now even stronger than before… imagine what could be done… sigh). Similarly I don’t want little bits of content scattered all over the web in separate, albeit all frizzy, strands – pictures, videos, knitting, screen-grabs, audio delight etc etc etc.

This is where it’s at, as far as I’m concerned, the blog. And, short of starting all over again and setting up some sort of personal portal, this is where it’s going to stay. But how to get everything all in one place?

One sort of solution is the Show Yourself widget (over to the right in the sidebar down near the bottom). The problem is that it’s static. It’s a list of links, albeit easily generated and reasonably well presented ones, but it doesn’t change unless I choose to add or subtract to it which is a rather time-consuming business.

A dynamic solution is to harvest rss feeds which can be displayed in the sidebar. I’ve had lots of those for various separate things over the years using the versatile Feed Digest – see for instance the latest Global Voices headlines and the latest tracks I’ve listened to on iTunes which are displayed in the sidebar under “Global Voicing” and “Listening”.

Now I’m also funneling feeds from my flickr and tumblr accounts into my twitter stream using the excellent twitterfeed. When I post something new to either it automatically generates a twitter entry (a tweet) which includes a clickable link back to the original item. I’m toying with the idea of adding feeds of newly posted videos on YouTube (should I ever actually post any) and newly-started knitting projects as listed on Ravelry.

An aside: despite the fact that this site is still in beta and can’t be accessed by non-members it’s currently ranked fifth out of the top ten web applications as listed by Web App Charts. And how do I know this? because pixeldiva twittered it (although you probably won’t be able to see the twitter itself unless you’re already an approved follower).

All these tweets, which now include notifications of exciting content generated by yours truly as well as my 140-characters-constrained text ramblings, now appear as a clickable list of links in my sidebar under the heading “Curly strands of content”, changed from “Twittering” to reflect the rather larger ambit. And, in a move indicative of how exciting I find the whole thing, it’s been shunted to the premium page real estate position at the top of the screen. W000t!

Now you might, if you have managed to read this far and actually followed my labyrinthine explanations, be asking yourself why I’m channeling everything through twitter rather than syphoning all the constituent feeds into a single output using the aforementioned Feed Digest. And if you are, the answer is that using this method not only does everything obediently appear in the blog sidebar it also gets distributed to my (tiny but very select and gorgeous) twitter community and appears automagically as my “status update” on Facebook.

Er, right. That’s it. From the length of this post it might appear that I’ve spent all day setting these things up. I haven’t. It’s actually really quick and easy. Most of the day has been spent researching possible yarn for a hat for Neha and yarn and a pattern for fingerless mittens for a friend, allergic to wool, who has a birthday soon.

(Oh, and be glad I didn’t diverge into territory, and yes I do know that a link to my blog posts appears on my blog. Or at least it should do if I didn’t delete the associated twitterfeed by mistake. So this post also acts as a test of that. Right, I’m really going now.)

This is not a blog post

Saudi Arabia added yet another accolade to its freedom of speech record by arresting its first blogger. Fouad Al Farhan, considered by many as being the dean of Saudi bloggers for being among the first to blog in his country using his real name, has been arrested in Jeddah.

Global Voices, 23 December 2007


That was quick – the test was only a couple of days ago.

The measure we used during the study was the Harvard Group Scale of Hypnotic Susceptibility and is one of the most reliable and widely used measure of hypnotisability. The scores range from 0 (least hypnotisable) to 12 (most hypnotisable).

You scored 11, which puts you in the high hypnotisable range.

Please note that hypnotisability has no relation to gullibility (being fooled), giving in to being pressured by others (conformity), or believing unusual things. In fact people who are high hypnotisable have been found to have better attention and concentration than others.

So, do I fancy further guinea piggery?

Hmmm. Let me think about it.

For a picosecond or two.

Hypnotic earworm

by the sea - blue

Why would this image have anything to do with an earworm?

It was the teacher’s suggestion to use blue ink to make the print. Inspired. Now the water and foam look both like water and foam and also sky and cloud. And the moon floats serenely in both.

(Let me link yet again to the absolutely brilliant poem the image was originally created to go alongside.)

Sky and clouds feature as a metaphor for conveying how we might still our minds during meditation:

The mind is like space or like sky, completely clear, not solid, and vast, spacious and unlimited.

Try to get a sense of how your mind is like that, like this clear, vast, spacious sky.

The things that we are aware of, the thoughts, images, memories and so on, are similar to the clouds that pass through the sky.

They’re not always there but they appear and after a while they disappear.

If there are thoughts appearing in your mind while you are sitting here doing this meditation, thoughts, memories, images, or if you hear sounds or feel sensations in your body, think that these are just like clouds, passing through this space or clear sky of your mind.

Let them come and let them go, realise that they are only momentary and not solid, they just come and go.

Let them go and return your awareness to the mind itself, which is like the clear spacious sky.

“You can be above your thoughts and watch them as though they were clouds below you in the sky” said my teacher.

I have a huge problem with this, though. Absolutely massive.

The problem is that the first time I was introduced to this way of conceptualising the activity (or lack of activity) someone in the group, who shall remain nameless but never forgotten, started singing Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchel:

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.

And every single time, yes, every. single. time. I meditate in this way I have to listen to Joni and her little ditty.

This has been amusing. Also infuriating. Boring. Enraging. Irritating like a shirt label rubbing the sensitive skin on the back of your back. Painful as an ill-fitting shoe rubbing a raw patch of skin. Frustratingly circularly self-referential as a small dog chasing its docked tail.

No doubt this is highly revealing in some way about the crapness of my mind but don’t ask me how. Nowadays I just let her twitter on, secure in the knowledge that there’s nothing I can do about it and trying to makes it worse. Maybe one day it won’t happen… and I’ll notice. And then maybe, one day, it won’t happen… and I won’t notice!

After producing a permanent pictorial reminder of a meditation closed-loop I trundled down to the IoP to take part in Dr Bell‘s research into the neuropsychology of suggestion and dissociative disorders, which was remarkably similar to the Joni effect.

I used to believe myself highly susceptible to hypnosis since a friend at university, who’d done a day’s course, managed to make me offer the assembled company hot chocolate in midsummer as a result of post-hypnotic suggestion. Of course I only have everyone else’s word for it that I was acting in a pre-programmed way since I remember nothing other than making the offer and everyone falling about laughing.

This time it was different. Although I believe I was probably hypnotised because I couldn’t, for instance, bend my arm when told it was stiff there was part of my brain which was observing everything as though from a distance. Looking at clouds from both sides now, as it were. So while I couldn’t bend my arm when told it was as stiff as a bar of iron there was part of my brain saying “hmmm, interesting. You’re trying really hard to bend your arm, genuinely trying, but you can’t. However you know that you haven’t lost the ability to move. You could do it. But you won’t because you’ve been told you can’t. Hmmm. Interesting.”

Most interesting was the post-hypnotic suggestion. I remember being told that I was going to forget everything I had been asked to do while hypnotised and then remember everything when I prompted by a certain set of words. I think I was told that I was also going to forget what I had been told. But the cloud-watching part of the brain was busy telling me that this was obviously the post-hypnotic suggestion part of the plan and was keeping tabs on what was going on.

When we were “woken up” we were asked to write down on a piece of paper what we had been doing while hypnotised. I knew that I’d been told I wouldn’t be able to remember, I also knew that I almost certainly could, but – and here’s the interesting bit (for those of you who might not find this blow-by-blow account entirely riveting) – I couldn’t activate the part of my brain necessary to recover the memory in order to write it down. In the end I had to write “I was told I wouldn’t be able to remember but I can’t remember whether I was told I wouldn’t be able to remember that or not”.

Doncha just love the human brain?

I fear my failure to be deeply hypnotised will rule me out of further opportunities to take part in the research and, most important of all to me, have a brain scan image all of my very own to play with. Rats.

So now I’m wondering what effect, if any, practising meditation has on ones suggestibility for hypnosis and whether this particular sort of dissociative activity (“mind observing mind”, unlike the pathological dissociation experienced by people with PTSD and, let it be said, certain forms of depression) is useful or otherwise.

Rhetorical wonderings, of course. But I’m glad I went and I’m glad I have the print which so serendipitously reminds me of the experience.

Three very wise monkeys

wise monkeys

Keep watching, listening to and talking about Burma. From the Free Burma demo and rally held in London.

Of course it won’t do much good unless China, India and Thailand do something about it too, along with the pusillanimous and self-serving west. And the UN. So let’s keep campaigning for that to happen.

(Picture from my mobile because my camera’s broken and I went to the rally on the way to take it in to be mended. A month without it!)