On how we love animals (except when we love how they taste)

While in France, I read the whole of The Square and the Tower, and then embarked upon The Ape that Understood the Universe.

In the latter book, the matter of how humans get all sentimental about animals is mentioned (pp. 59-60):

… Why do so many people take such delight in string at infant members of other species? It’s not as if, say, porcupines enjoy staring at baby chickens. As with porn, our love of these nonhuman animals is probably not an adaptation. More than likely, it’s spillover from psychological mechanisms designed for more human-centered purposes. There’s a certain cluster of traits that people everywhere find irresistibly cute. This includes big round eyes in the center of the face, a small nose, and plump, stubby limbs. Our affection for creatures with these features presumably evolved to motivate us to care for our own infants and toddlers. But the same features are found in many other infant mammals, and even in the adult members of some nonhuman species. As a result, we often feel affectionate and protective toward these individuals as well – not because it’s adaptive, but just because adaptations aren’t perfect. By the way, as you might already have
noticed, the spill over hypothesis doesn’t just explain our fondness for cute animal videos. It also hints at an explanation for a much older and more pervasive phenomenon: our habit of keeping pets.

Motivated I am sure by exactly this sort of fondness for animals myself, I have become more and more intrigued by this general human propensity. Which is why so many of my photos involve non-human creatures of one sort or another.

Here are some of the non-human creatures photos I photoed while in France recently:

Even the photos involving signs urging dog owners to clear up canine crap (photos 12, 14 and 17) are about our positive feelings towards animals, because the offending dogs are pets. And even the two plastic barrier things (photo 16) are “other creatures”, in the sense that we insist on seeing the faces of creatures where there are none, even though these particular non-creatures each have only one eye. Yes, we do love these creatures.

And yet, by way of a corrective, we also do these kinds of things to particularly tasty creatures, in this case to various mammals and to fishes:


Mystery lake in the south of France

I spent my day doing domestic chores, and my blogging time, such as it was, going through all the photos I photoed in France, copying many of them into separate directories by subject matter. Motor bikes, Christmas decorations, roof clutter, health and safety signs, that kind of thing. I’m still wondering how and what to show here, so in the meantime, here is the very first thing in France that I photoed:

I am one of those very infrequent flyers for whom the view out of an airplane window is still rather magical, even out of a manky old Ryanair window. But the weather for my journeys from Stansted to Carcassonne and back was cloudy. I saw very little, and photoed almost nothing.

But I did photo the above lake, somewhere north-ish of Carcassonne, seven minutes before we landed there. However, my best Google maps efforts did not manage to locate this distinctively shaped stretch of water.

There is one commenter here in particular (happy new year Alastair), who says he finds it hard to resist trying to identify things I photo, which I myself cannot identify. Maybe he can help.

A sixteenth century map of the world

Via Twitter, and something called Map Porn, I found my way to this world map drawn by Ahmed Muhiddin Piri in the 16th century:

Yet I can only find one other reference to it on the www, in the form of a print of the above which is for sale, here, where it’s described as a “Fine Archival Reproduction”. So far as I can work it out, this is a bodged together guess about a map that “Ahmed Muhiddin Piri” (aka “Piri Reis”) did create, but which only survives in the form of a small fragment. We know he knew enough to have created such a map. So, hey, we did create it. But I could be completely wrong about this, because I’m still trying to get my head around it all. Perhaps this is a copy of a real map. Maybe the internet is full of descriptions of it, which I merely failed to find.

The reason I’m interested in this map, or the maps that enabled this map to be made, is that it illustrates how much more they knew about the geography of the world in other parts of the world than Europe. When Europe “discovered” the rest of the world, this wasn’t Europeans discovering a primitive and poverty-stricken place, which only started getting rich after they’d discovered it. What the Europeans discovered was lots of places far richer than Europe, like India and China. And that’s just what the Europeans were trying to do. Just because they also “discovered” such places as Australia and North America, which were poorer, doesn’t mean that their basic motive was to conquer the world. No, what the Europeans were trying to do was get connected with an already thriving world, with which they could import mystical luxuries like spice, and from which they could learn, but which they stopped from doing, by the conquest of the Middle East by Islam. So, the Europeans decided to go round. Round Africa. Round the world, by going west. (That being why the West “Indies” got called “Indies”. And why the people we now call Native Americans were know for many decades as “Red Indians”. Still were, when I was a kid. And still are, by some.)

The European economic breakthrough that made its presence felt in the late 18th century was, globally speaking, something of an end run, as Americans would say. As I learned from that book I’ve been enthusing about by Steve Davies, Europe remained disunited, developed modern guns and never stopped developing them, starting winning wars against the likes of Indians (real ones, in India), then went from inventing and improving guns to inventing and improving everything else and thus unleashed the Industrial Revolution. Europe only got out in front rather late in the story. Oh, it was special. But so were lots of other places.

As the above map illustrates. Or, I think it does.

And maybe it also illustrates something else. Interestingly, the one big thing it gets wrong, the thing only people nearby then knew about properly, was Australasia. Rumours about northern Australia made people think that Australia was part of what we call Antarctica. New Zealand? Again, locals on boats in islands to the north presumably knew about it. But people like Ahmed Muhiddin/Piri Reis, and his various informants? They had no idea.

An eccentric form of transport

I’m always on the lookout for eccentric forms of transport, and I especially liked this one, which I spotted on Blackfriars Bridge this afternoon:

In the background, Blackfriars railway (station) bridge, and beyond that, the Shard, Tate Modern Tower, Tate Modern Extension.

This is, I think, one of those electrically assisted bikes, by which I mean pedals and a motor of some sort.

I looks too big and heavy to have much of a maneuverability advantage in heavy traffic. But at least the thing must have been quite cheap to buy. So the guy can start earning his living without too much saving up. I’m guessing this is the saving up bit. Good luck to him.

I used to go biking round Europe with a small tent and sleeping bag on the back. With a gizmo like this I could have carried a far grander tent and really lived in some style. But, rather inconvenient.

Michael Jennings on China – as seen from Nepal and from Australia

I have one of my Last Friday of the Month talks at my home tomorrow evening. See the next posting for news about that. Meanwhile, here are some thoughts that Michael Jennings jotted down, concerning the talk he’ll be giving in the same series on October 25th. While writing this, he didn’t know he was writing a blog posting. That only happened when I asked him if I could stick it up here, and he said … okay, yes:

In April and May this year, I spent a month in Nepal. I spent a fair portion of this in very remote areas – places (such as the region of Upper Mustang) that were almost literally medieval kingdoms only 30 years ago. These places are no longer medieval and no longer kingdoms, but they are still very poor, agricultural communities. At least, the ones without roads connecting them to the outside world are very poor, agricultural communities. Communities with roads connecting them to the outside world are different. Still poor by international standards, but much richer. The roads are being built with Chinese money and expertise.

These places are also very close to the border with Tibet. These places have always been close to the border with Tibet, but of course, these days this means the border with China. As China has become economically more powerful in recent years, the Chinese influence on these places has become stronger. The locals have mixed feelings about that. The Chinese have resources and get things done, whereas governments of Nepal – and governments of their nearer and friendlier neighbour India – are not known for this. On the other hand, if you cross the border you had better not be carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama, and if a Chinese policeman tells you to do something, you had better do it. (Nepali policemen are fairly amiable, mildly corrupt, and not people to worry about that much). The Chinese are building roads and power stations, which is making people richer. This is generally considered to be good. The Chinese bring money and wealth, but they also bring an extremely authoritarian political model with it, and you can see this in one small, poor country of a very different culture to theirs

This is one relatively small, poor country case of the interactions that a rising China is having with much of Asia and much of the world. At the other end of this are things like the interactions of my native Australia with China. Australia was always rich, but is now very rich due principally to selling iron ore and coal to China for the last 20 years. Australia has a large Chinese community, that has arrived in the country mostly in the last 50 years. 30 years ago, Australia would have been unequivocal in its support for the present demonstrators in Hong Kong, if events such as that had been happening then. These days, the Australian government says nothing. Meanwhile, Chinese students in Australia are spied on by Chinese secret police, Chinese language newspapers in Australia – there are many – are intimidated into taking a pro-Beijing line, and other similar things. Do Australians like this – not much, although Australians do generally like Chinese people and Chinese immigrants individually. Australia is now in an uncomfortable position of gaining much of its prosperity from people with an extremely authoritarian political model that we don’t particularly like.

Two extreme examples, but a great many countries in Asia and Africa (and elsewhere) face the same questions, to varying degrees. I will be giving a talk in which I discuss what this means for the world and where this may all lead.

There’ll be another talk about China on the last Friday of November, which is November 28th, by Hong-Konger-now-based-in-London Katy Lau. No apologies whatever for the “duplication”. First, it won’t be. These will be two completely different takes on China. And second, could any subject in the world be more important just now, or more vast in its scope and significance?

Tardigrades on the moon?

Definitely the best “other creature” in the news during the last few days:

It looks like a space monster in a movie, from the far off time before special effects became perfect and boring, and everything had to be made by hand.

But this is actually a real creature, much smaller than it looks, and now, maybe, getting a whole new start as a miniature moon monster:

Thousands of tardigrades – also known as “water bears” or “moss piglets” – were on board the Beresheet spacecraft when it crash landed on the moon in April.

The tiny creatures are incredibly hardy and can survive extremely low temperatures and harsh conditions– and The Arch Mission Foundation, which sent them into space, believes some may have survived.

Tardigrades are pudgy little animals no longer than one millimeter. They live in water or in the film of water on plants like lichen or moss, and can be found all over the world in some of the most extreme environments, from icy mountains and polar regions to the balmy equator and the depths of the sea.

The Arch Mission Foundation sounds scary, doesn’t it? Like something a Bond villain would preside over. An arch villain.

A little shipspotting

A little bit of spotting I mean. The ship itself was rather big.

Remember this map, showing where I went walking from Maze Hill station to YOU ARE HERE, and then went north to the Dome:

The original idea of that posting was to say where I was, and then tell you about something rather interesting I saw from that spot. But by the time I had finished rambling on about the sign of which the above map was a part, I already had an entire posting, about the sign.

But yes, there I was at YOU ARE HERE, and rather than concentrating all my attention on the view of where I was about to go, I also looked west. Here’s what I saw:

That’s right, one of those huge and impossibly top-heavy-looking cruise ships.

I tried to think when I had ever seen such a vessel in London before. I have a very vague recollection of having once such a thing, maybe, but nothing for sure. Well, well.

I then turned right and north, and in among all the photos I took on my way north, I occasionally looked back at this ship:

Those being the same photo, one of the last I took, with, on the right, the bit of the photo on the left which shows the actual ship slightly more clearly.

And this was the very last photo I took of her, maximum zoom:

With that, I took a turn inland, dictated by the path I was following, and I saw no more of her.

When I got home, I became curious about this ship. Name? I look a closer look at one of my photos above, and found this:

The Viking Jupiter. So, basically, that would be: Wotan. Just kidding. Viking’s the line, Jupiter’s the name. Fair enough. Just because an ancient (in both senses) historian might get angry about saddling a bunch of Norsemen with a Roman god, that doesn’t mean anyone else has to fret about this.

Then, in an inspired move, I wondered what Google Maps would have to say about the spot where I saw this ship. Here’s what came up:

And in particular, closer-up, this:

So, not just a pier of some sort, an actual ship. This would appear to be a regular London thing, with a regular pier for the ship to attach itself to in a regular spot.

Google google. Here is a map of the cruise that the Viking Jupiter was about to embark upon:

I had always thought that ships like this confined themselves to places like the West Indies or the Mediterranean. London? Liverpool? Apparently so.

Yet again, what I observed, and photoed with much pleasure, was something I would not dream of purchasing myself. Cruising on a big and over-decorated cruise ship like this is absolutely not my kind of thing. If they paid me £6,340 to do a cruise like this, I might even turn that down. (Probably not, but maybe.) But, I rejoice that London is part of this business.

I was there on the afternoon of July 29th, and “departure” was supposedly the 28th. But I think that may have meant the day when you had to leave your home in the UK, get to London and check in on the ship.

Photo and learn. Blog and learn.

New category, long overdue: maps.

I now rather regret that I didn’t scrap my original plan and turn left, and take a much closer look at this ship. Maybe next year.

Cool – and beautiful

Yesterday’s weather, as prophesied at midday yesterday:

And today’s weather, as prophesied later on yesterday:

Which means that today, there’ll be a photo expedition. Another trip to the Dome and nearby parts, I think. There’s some sort of copy of New York’s High Line going on over there.

The plan is to go to Maze Hill station, head north to the River, and then walk all around the Greenwich Peninsula until I get to the High Line thingy, checking out the Optic Cloak and the Quantum Cloud as I go. (Too busy being about to go out to insert links. Look them up.) Then, depending on my mood, I might take the Emirates Dangleway over the river and see in particular how the stuff on the bank on the north side of the River is now looking, from above. Then, with or without the Dangleway journey, home.

The further plan is that by putting this plan here, I make it more likely that I will actually do it.