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September 2012

Falling Down the Stairs

No blogs this week on account of an accident on the staircase this morning. I was carrying my 18-month son down for his morning milk when I slipped and slid on my back all the way down to the ground floor. Soren is fine, thankfully – I held him tightly to my chest – but I’ve taken quite a few hits on my back and scraped my left elbow. I seem to have escaped serious injury, but I have to go to the hospital just to make sure.

Back soon!

Temporal Anomaly

Terribly busy right now, and the blogs (not to mention the next book!) are suffering as a result. Might have to park the blogging for a while, but I’ll try and keep the plates spinning a little longer.

Picking the Bones of a Library

Old Books Shelves of books, lying in temporary storage, waiting their inevitable demise… Someone’s life’s work, perhaps, this small part of a once, great library collection, now no longer needed – changes in course content, changes in university policy, changes in public attitudes, all contribute to consigning vast racks of paperbacks and hardbacks to uncertain limbo and beyond to some ultimate dissolution. Should I waste my empathy on this library carcass? I have no choice but to quell a futile urge to weep that comes over me in the face of this utterly trivial tragedy. I cannot ask that anyone else cares, but as for myself I have no choice in the matter.

The other week, two postgraduate philosophers appeared in my office – a rare sight in this campus, since there are no philosophy courses on offer. I had met them both at a conference the university had held the other month with the barely concealed purpose of forcing the faculty to mingle with itself. They had come from a dilapidated building on the other side of the university’s plot of land, an old mill that has seen better days. They told me of a room with shelves of books that had been culled from the library proper, and which were effectively free to a good home – and that the collection included an array of philosophy books.

One of the librarians took me there, and talked me through the situation. In essence, I was free to take whatever I wished from the storage shelves, but I had to leave them on the floor first so that they could catalogue what had been taken. It seemed like a simple enough task. So I began to make my way through the philosophy collection… Upon the floor, stacks of books began to rise, my picking of the flesh from the dead bones of this library. Books of ethics, famous and obscure; old dog-eared hardbacks of classic Nietzsche and Kierkegaard; fresh, glistening paperback tomes bursting at the spine with essays – all rescued from their internment like pets from death row.

I love libraries and second-hand book stores, all the places where musty pages congregate, but this rescue of unloved volumes saddened me. I couldn’t help but see in these shelves the work of someone who compiled a great collection of philosophy books – hitting all the obvious touchstones, while seasoning with rarities and oddities. With each book, the same harsh question? Can I use it? Such a cold way of dealing with things, but there was no other way to make the problem tractable. In the end, my ragtag caravan of refugee texts were just a tiny proportion of the books being held there – and I didn’t even look in disciplines outside of philosophy.

Why did taking these books feel so empty and distant? Titles I would have been thrilled to find in a shady used bookstore and purchase for a few coins depressed me when acquiring them for free. And with it all, the nagging sense that there was no possibility whatsoever of reading them all, that these books were so much baggage I was bringing into my life. Perhaps I will feel differently when they are in the book shelves of my office, which frankly have needed populating since I only filled one or two of them when I first arrived here.

Libraries are more than storehouses, they have their own personalities – they violate their well-known imperative to silence by shouting their ideas and opinions to anyone whose eyes will dare to listen. Within every shelf, a view of the world. Their death, their putrescence, is the abandoning of chaotic character for the diverse homogeneity of the internet, where you can find myriad interjections about anything at all, as long as it’s popular and inconsequential. Bless you, oh librarians, for the honour you have bestowed the humble book over this millennium of paper words. Your collections may fade to dust, but your service is eternal.

Multiplayer Minecraft Experiences Sought


Do you play Minecraft with friends? I’m interested in hearing from people with experience of multiplayer Minecraft, with particular emphasis on the following points:

  • Have you played in other online worlds, and if so what were you playing before you came to Minecraft? How did you come to change from the previous game to Minecraft?
  • Do you feel a sense of community with your fellow Minecraft players, and if so how does it manifest? Do you play at the same time, or at different times? How do you communicate with other players?
  • What are the best aspects of playing Minecraft multiplayer instead of solo? What makes it worthwhile?
  • What are the worst aspects of multiplayer Minecraft? What do you wish you could change, or what irritates you about playing Minecraft with other players?

Please share your thoughts over at!

Does Morality Still Matter?


What are the big ethical questions facing us today, and what makes those questions matter? Can those problems be separated from political questions, and if not does that mean that politics has usurped ethics? Has accusation become the principal activity of contemporary morality – and if so, has ethics been reduced to mere finger pointing? When was the last time you pondered a moral problem relating to your own life and behaviour?

Thoughts welcome.

Strange Horizons

Boats at the Horizon What is the simple and enigmatic power of this thin line dividing the sky above from the world below? How do we understand the boundaries of our perception? And what strange horizons split us away from each other, ourselves, and our futures?

I grew up on the Isle of Wight, a thirty mile wide rock just off the south coast of the British Isles. I'd spend every day either in – or at the very least beside – the sea. It had a profound influence on me, in ways quite beyond my ability to measure. How many days did I spend, sat upon the shore (or nestled upon an outcropping on the cliffs), staring out to the horizon?

Those who have not lived near the sea cannot quite appreciate the relationship with the horizon I have. My wife, raised in foothills and mountains, sees nothing of interest in this dark blue line, which splits the sky from the sea below. To me, it is a symbol of the mysteries of life and existence, for I cannot under any circumstances see beyond it. What is across the offing I know only because I imagine it, a mental image constructed from my acquired beliefs about the world.

When a ship sets sail for France, it can be viewed from the southern coast of the Island as if it travels from left to right, getting smaller and smaller as it does. Any sense of further is in my mind, for all I see is shrinking, not receding. Similarly, distant clouds hanging low in the firmament do not convey their distances as effectively as they can their scale. Everything is distorted from linear relations, yet in my mental reconstruction of what I am seeing I reassign notions of distance since I know this is ‘what I am seeing’.

Knowing of the curvature of the Earth, I found myself as a child trying to reconstruct that minuscule recession from the ideal plane in my imagined perspectives. Yet this is not easy, perhaps not even possible, precisely because of the distorting effect of the offing, that band of ever-more distant sea that ultimately becomes infinite (or infinitesimal) at the horizon itself. The curvature is so scant, it cannot be seen and must instead be projected from mind into world.

Similarly, attempts to imagine how the horizon would appear had our planet been flat, as some of the more ancient cultures believed, fail me. It is the distance not the curvature that gives the horizon its illusory properties – clearly even a flat plane would have stretched out to a vanishing point, as every dabbler in artistic perspective can vouch. The horizon cannot, then, provide much evidence for the spheroid shape of our world when taken on its own. We must already be thinking of curvature before it can have any meaningful connection with the horizon as actually seen.

Then there are the times when the horizon is invisible for other, more visceral reasons – when the surf pounds upon the shoreline with awesome and relentless force. The horizon is still out there, but it is lost against the spectacular power on display in front of me, which could, and in several instances almost did, end my life without hesitation or awareness. This is Kant’s sublime in all it’s fearsome beauty! I can never underestimate what the waves mean to me, in their terrible and relentless roil. I play at being brave, edging closer to their fury. But like the horizon itself, I cannot get any closer than peering from the edge.

There are those for whom the world is viewed as known, every detail in place. Oddly, the perpetual revising of knowledge reinforces, rather than undermines, this sense of completeness for many who hold such a perspective. For me, whatever I know is always limited by horizons of mind as well as sight. These can be found not just at the edge of the physical world, but at the boundaries of our experience. Each Other we face lies beyond a horizon of understanding – we project our beliefs of what we know of someone, something, into that nebulous gulf that separates us from them. We do not, except perhaps for one scant moment, sense the horizon that separates us from all that we are or might be.

Our world appears complete, the horizon a mark of distance. Yet that distance is there in every encounter, every moment of being. It is a mystery of the most wondrous kind, and I have no desire to void it with comfortably square-edged beliefs about what is and is not, what is really the case versus what we merely believe. Our beliefs are never merely beliefs, they are our world and they change every aspect of our experience within it. When I look at the horizon, what I see and what I imagine come apart completely, since I could not ever hope to see the horizon as it ‘really is’. So it is with life. Some may despair of mystery. For me, mystery is what gives life its most marvellous potential, for time like space is sheared off at a horizon beyond which lies every wondrous possibility yet to come.