Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of posts from all of Richard Carter's blogs. en-gb Richard Carter Book review: ‘Improbable Destinies’ by Jonathan Losos Tue, 22 Aug 2017 15:27:17 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) How predictable is evolution? Improbable DestiniesThe late Stephen Jay Gould more than once observed that, were it possible to roll back time and re-run evolutionary history, we would most likely end up with very different results. Minor differences in circumstances can lead to very different evolutionary pathways.

Others, most notably Simon Conway Morris, hold that evolution is far more predictable than Gould would have had us believe. As evidence, they cite the interesting phenomenon of convergent evolution, where different species evolve strikingly similar features in similar circumstances. A classic example is the similar body shapes of dolphins, sharks, ichthyosaurs, and (at more of a stretch) penguins: these predators’ ‘designs’ enable them to move quickly under water. If mammals, fish, ichthyosaurs, and birds evolved such similar shapes for moving at speed in the same environment, the argument goes, evolution must, to some extent, be predictable.

Those who maintain that evolution is more predictable than we might suppose sometimes go so far as to claim that upright, bipedal, intelligent life was almost inevitable on Earth. Had it not been for that pesky asteroid, they say, the world would now, quite possibly, be being ruled by dinosaurian, rather than mammalian, humanoids. This despite the fact that, as far as we know, upright, bipedal, intelligent dinosaurs failed to evolve in the 180-million years that dinosaurs actually did rule the earth.

Jonathon Losos's interesting book sets out to explore both the phenomenon of convergent evolution, and the possibility of performing experiments to assess evolutionary predictions. In the first part of the book, he describes many examples of convergent evolution. In subsequent sections, he describes experiments in the wild, and in more controlled environments, to determine whether the accuracy of various evolutionary predictions can be tested.

Although convergent evolution is a genuinely fascinating phenomenon, it is considerably less remarkable when the species in question are closely related. When presented with similar environmental challenges, is it really at all surprising when closely related species evolve similar solutions? Evolution can only tinker with what is already there; how many fundamentally different tweaks can be made to closely related lizards, for example, to help them evade a new predator? In fairness to Losos, he makes this point more than once, but, to this non-expert at least, it seemed as if more might have been made of it. There is a world of a difference between two species of stickleback, to cite another example, evolving brighter colours in the absence of predators, and dinosaurs evolving into intelligent humanoids. Even if small-scale convergent evolution of closely related species is common, extrapolating to claim that the evolution of intelligent humanoids is almost inevitable is another thing entirely.

Sensibly, Losos doesn't spend too much time examining arguments about putative humanoid dinosaurs—although he does eventually make his own position clear. This book is primarily about the experiments: how scientists have begun to test evolutionary predictions, and to assess how particular examples of convergent evolution come about. Both of which strike me as far more interesting and useful than coming up with untestable hypotheses about where dinosaurs might have gone next.

An entertaining book on an interesting subject.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Pineapples and porcupines… Fri, 18 Aug 2017 07:24:13 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) A prickly pair. Both prickly. Both begin with the letter ‘P’.

Coincidence? I'll let you decide.

(Don't get me started on bloody pufferfish.)


Reaching out Sat, 12 Aug 2017 00:17:11 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) I'll tell you what's mildly irritating: people who say ‘reached out to’ when they mean ‘contacted’. I'll tell you what's mildly irritating: people who say ‘reached out to’ when they mean ‘contacted’.

Just listen to yourselves!

Newsletter No. 8: But is it Art? Fri, 11 Aug 2017 13:58:26 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) iPads · s-town · babylonian astronomy · patti smith · james kelman · star-stuff · golden age of photography · conveying life's wonders · horses · bees · organ donations Rich Text

11 AUGUST 2017


I recently replaced my beloved but technologically ancient iPad with a brand-spanking-new iPad Pro. It’s a wonderful piece of kit. I draft most of my writing on the iPad, including this newsletter.

Thanks to the electronic Apple Pencil that accompanies the iPad, I’m rediscovering the horror that is my handwriting, and the joys of doodling.

Moor grass doodle

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

Nine shall be the number I shall recommend, and the number of the recommending shall be nine:

  1. I finally got round to listening to the phenomenally successful S-Town Podcast. It’s a seven-episode documentary about an Alabama town and a colourful character named John. Highly recommended.

  2. Science historian Mathieu Ossendrijver has translated five cuneiform tablets which show that Babylonian astronomers used geometry to track Jupiter.

  3. The wonderful Patti Smith reminisces about her buddy Sam Shepherd.

  4. James Kelman on his approach to writing, and how writer’s block is ‘an economic luxury’.

  5. The late, great Carl Sagan famously explained how we are all made of ‘star-stuff’. Now, computer modellers have calculated that around half our bodies’ atoms formed outside our galaxy. We’ve come a long way.

  6. The thought-provoking video What does photographer Pedro Meyer think?, in which the veteran Mexican photographer explains that we are living in a golden age of photography. (If you don’t have time to watch the full 16 minute video, you might like to start at around the 9-minute mark.)

  7. George Monbiot on why we need new words to convey life’s wonders. I was in two minds about this one, agreeing with many, but not all, of his examples.

  8. My friend GrrlScientist on how almost all modern horses are descended from a few oriental stallions. Long-form science blogging at its finest.

  9. This fantastic video of 21 days of bee development condensed into one minute.

Shameless plug

I recently wrote about my grandma’s organ donation. (Don’t worry, no surgery was involved.)

Five bonus points to those of you who spotted the Monty Python reference earlier.

Is it art?

Grandma’s organ donation Thu, 10 Aug 2017 13:49:29 +0100 Richard Carter ( On the mysterious arrival, and equally mysterious disappearance, of a Wurlitzer organ.
On the mysterious arrival, and equally mysterious disappearance, of a Wurlitzer organ.

Article source:

Some time in the late 1970s, a Wurlitzer organ appeared out of nowhere in the corner of our dining room. It was a big wooden affair with a folding lid, two keyboards one above the other, and a whole bunch of switches, dials and pedals.

You could tell it was a Wurlitzer organ because it had the word WURLITZER emblazoned across it in garish gold letters. Off to the right, more discreet lettering bore the legend Crane & Sons Ltd., Liverpool & London.

It turned out my grandma’s sister had recently decided to replace her electric organ. Never one to miss out on a bargain, grandma had bought the old organ for my sister and me. The first my sister and I (and, I recently learnt, our parents) knew about grandma’s generous gift was the day it landed in our dining room.

When you turned on the power, the organ made an alarming thump followed by a more subdued humming noise. It took several minutes to warm up. While you waited, you got to flip the switches and turn the dials into the required configuration. There was a large collection of black switches labelled with the names of musical instruments: violins, cellos, glockenspiel, guitar, horns, and so on. The most notable thing about these switches was, no matter which combination you selected, the sound emanating from the organ remained essentially unchanged. It seemed to me Wurlitzer could have saved themselves, and us, a whole lot of bother if they had simply had a single switch labelled electric organ. There were also switches to alter the bass and treble settings, which did at least seem to make some appreciable difference to the din, as did one labelled Sustain. But our favourite switches were the three labelled Vibrato, the options being On, Fast and Full. We always flipped all three, which made the notes more wobbly.

In case you haven’t already worked it out, I should perhaps make it clear that, with the exception of grandma’s electric-organ-playing sister and their long-dead half-brother (of whom, more shortly), I come from an entirely unmusical family. Don’t get me wrong: we all enjoy listening to music, but actually playing the stuff is another matter entirely. To this day, I remain in awe of anyone who can string a bunch of notes together. It’s voodoo, as far as I’m concerned.

The organ came with a matching stool whose seat lifted to reveal a compartment for storing sheet music. Inside we found a thick book of ‘popular tunes’. Presumably, these were tunes popular with the sort of people who enjoyed a good sing-along around the family Wurlitzer: Danny Boy, We’ll Gather Lilacs, Abide With Me, and a host of other songs my sister and I had never heard of. There was also a photocopy of the music for the song Why Does a Red Cow Give White Milk When it Always Eats Green Grass? Although we didn’t know the tune, my sister and I had at least heard of this one, as it had been written by grandma’s half-brother, the first-world-war pilot, variety entertainer, and pantomime dame Hal Miller.

Rather than arranging for costly music lessons, Dad, whose own musical curriculum vitae began and ended with an appearance in H.M.S. Pinafore at secondary school, decided to wait until either my sister or I began to demonstrate any sort of natural aptitude for, or even vague interest in, playing the organ. To ease our path to musical greatness, he hit upon the idea of labelling the Wurlitzer’s keys. He spent an entire wet afternoon carefully applying Letraset dry-transfer letters to both rows of white keys. The black lettering wouldn’t show up on the black keys, so those were left unlabelled.

All that remained was for my sister and me to consult the popular song book, choose a song we actually knew the tune to, read out the letters above the words of the song, and bang the keys with the same letters on the Wurlitzer. Just about the only song we did recognise was Silent Night. I can still recite the letters to this day:


Getting on for four decades later, Silent Night still comprises my entire musical repertoire.

Where was Mum in all this? Silently fuming. After a while, not so silently. From the day it arrived unannounced to take over the dining room, Mum began to drop subtle hints about how awfully big the Wurlitzer was. Within weeks, she was referring to it as ‘that damn thing’ and was refusing to dust it. In later years, she took to kicking it as she hoovered nearby.

The circumstances of the Wurlitzer’s eventual disappearance were as mysterious as those of its arrival. In 1986, I returned home from university to find the organ gone. Its alcove in the corner of the dining room had been reclaimed by its former occupant: Mum’s precious, well-dusted Ercol sideboard.

The Wurlitzer was never mentioned in polite conversation again.

Now we are 4,000 Tue, 08 Aug 2017 13:47:24 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (The Friends of Charles Darwin) The Friends of Charles Darwin have their 4,000th member. I'm pleased to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their 4,000th member: John Davison of Wessex, England.


The Pop-star Biscuit Game Mon, 07 Aug 2017 21:42:55 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) In which I invent a game about pop-stars who sound like biscuits. A somewhat misreported (to make me look even more awesome) conversation with Jen in the car this morning:

R: I’ve just thought of a new game. It’s called the Pop-star Biscuit Game. We take it in turns to name pop-stars who sound like biscuits. For example, Lionel Rich Tea. Your turn…
J: …Limp Bizkit.
R: No, that’s cheating. You can’t have ‘biscuit’ as part of the name. My turn… Jammy Dodger Miller.
R: Godley and Custard Cream.
R: Chocolate Bourbono.
R: Oreo Speedwagon.
R: I was Googling brands of biscuits before we came out. Can you tell?
J: KitKat Stevens.
R: KitKats are wafers, not biscuits.
R: Run Garibaldi MC.
R: I win!

The secret to winning the Pop-star Biscuit Game is planning. Planning and misreporting.

Over to you…

This has got to be Photoshopped, surely… Tue, 25 Jul 2017 07:13:45 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Farage bums puffin to death shock!

Right-wingers never learn, do they? NEVER HOLD UP A PIECE OF PAPER ON THE INTERNET

— DocHackenbush (@DocHackenbush) July 21, 2017

On the trot Sun, 02 Jul 2017 23:21:39 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Vegetarian diet twice as effective for weight-loss, new research shows.

Sydney Morning Herald: Vegetarian diet twice as effective for weight-loss, new research shows

Low-calorie diets are notoriously difficult to maintain in the long-term. But they may be unnecessary. Switching to a vegetarian diet can be twice as effective for weight-loss as counting calories, according to new research.

So is catching dysentery.

Theron lies the difference Sat, 01 Jul 2017 16:56:19 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) BBC: Celebrity names you’re probably saying wrong As Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot can do anything - apart from getting people to pronounce her name correctly. Turns out I’ve been mispronouncing Charlize Theron’s name for years. I wondered why she never …

BBC: Celebrity names you’re probably saying wrong

As Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot can do anything - apart from getting people to pronounce her name correctly.

Turns out I’ve been mispronouncing Charlize Theron’s name for years.

I wondered why she never returned my calls.

Newsletter No. 7: Hacked and hurt by time Fri, 30 Jun 2017 12:48:15 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) John Tyndall · Galápagos cormorants · why English is so odd · Thoreau & Darwin · anthropological discoveries · mass-extinction hyperbole · WG Sebald · yellow rattle · Inigo Thomas · Mars exploration Rich Text

30 JUNE 2017


Although I appreciate I should be getting On the Moor out there first, I’ve recently been ruminating on the theme of my next book. True to style, I have a number of vague, interweaving ideas in mind. Nothing concrete yet, but, believe me, I’m working in it.

During my ruminations, I came across a wonderful quote from the nineteenth-century scientist, mountaineer, and friend of Charles Darwin, John Tyndall. Tyndall features in two chapters of On the Moor. The quote I found, which was inspired by a view looking down on the Matterhorn, links the themes of thermodynamics, evolution, and erosion, all of which also feature in On the Moor:

As long as the temperature of our planet differs from that of space so long will the forms upon her surface undergo mutation, and as soon as equilibrium has been established we shall have, not peace, but death. Life is the product and accompaniment of change, and the self-same power that tears the flanks of the hills to pieces is the mainspring of the animal and vegetable worlds. Still, there is something chilling, if not humiliating, in the contemplation of the irresistible and remorseless character of those infinitesimal forces whose summation through the ages pulls down even the Matterhorn. Hacked and hurt by time, the aspect of the mountain from its higher crags saddened me. Hitherto the impression it had made was that of savage strength, but here we had inexorable decay.
—John Tyndall. ‘Old Alpine Jottings’ in New Fragments (1892).

I’m pretty sure I would have liked Tyndall, had I ever met him.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

This time, I have a veritable ennead of recommendations:

  1. How an Icon of Evolution Lost Its Flight
    Scientists have discovered some of the genetic changes behind the useless wings of Galápagos cormorants.

  2. English is not normal
    A fascinating article about how and why English is so odd.

  3. Thoreau’s debt to Darwin
    On his bicentenary, how Thoreau was reinvigorated by Darwin.

  4. Three new discoveries in a month rock our African origins
    An analysis of some important recent anthropological discoveries.

  5. Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction
    Our species is wreaking terrible damage on our planet, but easy with the mass-extinction hyperbole.

  6. W. G. Sebald, Humorist
    How an eccentric sense of playfulness runs through W.G. Sebald’s four major books.

  7. Daylight robbery in the grasslands
    It was quite a surprise to turn to the Guardian’s Country Diary feature to find it had been written by someone I’ve known since I was 11. Jeremy Dagley on yellow rattle: a parasitic plant that grows in abundance in my farmer friend’s top meadow.

  8. This moving London Review of Books Diary piece by Inigo Thomas about the death of his father.

  9. This NASA video celebrating 20 years of continuous Mars exploration.

Shameless plug

You might like to check out my recent article entitled Orion’s belt-buckle about the star I ‘adopted’ in my early teens.

Borrowed dog update

Millie the borrowed dog is with us for a couple more weeks. She is doing well, despite the perverse enjoyment she seems to derive from walks in the rain.

Now remind me… Which one of us ABSOLUTELY INSISTED on going for a walk, and which one of us thought to bring an umbrella?

Feel free to contact me with any feedback. And please forward this newsletter to any friends you think might enjoy it, suggesting in the politest possible terms that they really ought to subscribe for themselves.

As you were.

Surely this has got to be illegal… Thu, 29 Jun 2017 10:47:45 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Baby sale shock! Baby sale!

Stronger and stabler Mon, 26 Jun 2017 20:42:38 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) BBC: Conservatives agree pact with DUP to support May government An agreement has been reached which will see the Democratic Unionist Party back Theresa May’s minority government. The deal, which comes two weeks after the election resulted in a hung …

BBC: Conservatives agree pact with DUP to support May government

An agreement has been reached which will see the Democratic Unionist Party back Theresa May’s minority government.
The deal, which comes two weeks after the election resulted in a hung Parliament, will see the 10 DUP MPs back the Tories in key Commons votes.
There will be £1bn extra for Northern Ireland over the next two years.

One-billion pounds for 10 DUP votes. That's a mere £100-million per unspeakable DUP MP.

The Brussels Brexit negotiators must be shitting bricks.

Actually, I think Theresa May might have played a blinder here: when you haven't a leg to stand on, acting insane is probably your best strategy for getting people to fall for your bluffs: she might actually be that crazy.

The SATSASTSM button Mon, 26 Jun 2017 09:47:40 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) I'm beginning to think we might be taking the ‘home cinema’ concept a bit too far. I think we can all agree, home entertainment has improved dramatically in recent years. Not only do we no longer have to wait at least five bloody years to be able to buy our own personal copies of the latest films, but we can now watch them on high-definition, wide-screen tellies. Indeed, those of us with more than two ears can enjoy these films in multi-speaker surround-sound. And there's even microwaveable popcorn. What's not to like? (Apart from microwaveable popcorn, I mean.)

But I'm beginning to think we might be taking this ‘home cinema’ concept a bit too far. Nowadays, presumably to add to the authentic cinematic experience, we are expected to sit through half an hour of advertisements and trailers before the main feature begins.

Which is why I have just invented the SATSASTSM button. It looks like this:


The SATSASTSM button—or, to give it its full name, the Skip All The Shite And Show The Sodding Movie button—is a special button on your remote control that, as the name implies, skips all the shite and shows you the sodding movie straight away. How brilliantly simple is that? I'm frankly amazed nobody has thought of this before.

There aren't actually any remote controls featuring a SATSASTSM button at the moment, but, for the benefit of all movie buffs out there, I hereby waive all rights to my invention and make it freely available to any and all manufacturers wishing to avail themselves of such an essential killer feature.

You can thank me later.

Dogs’ sneezes Fri, 23 Jun 2017 22:57:47 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Did you ever wonder why dogs sneeze when they’re excited? Did you ever wonder why dogs sneeze when they’re excited? They usually sneeze more than once. Dogs are a highly olfactory species: perhaps it has something to do with clearing their noses in readiness for whatever exciting thing they think is about to happen. A Pavlovian reflex of the nose. (Whoever knew Pavlovian reflexes also worked on dogs!)

I wonder if wolves do the same thing. It would seem strange if they didn’t. I find it hard to believe sneezing in excitement is something dogs have picked up since we domesticated them, so it stands to reason wolves should too. On the other paw, sneezing in the excitement of the chase would seem a major disadvantage for wolves: it would be bound to lose them the odd caribou or two.

Mysteries like dogs’ sneezes make life worth living.

Strong and stable Wed, 21 Jun 2017 23:11:54 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Costa Rica’s President Luis Guillermo Solís swallows wasp. With a mentally ill narcissist in the White House, and a politically moribund, morally bankrupt Brexit appeaser in Number 10, where on Earth is one to turn for strong, stable leadership?

Oh, hang on a second…

BBC: Costa Rica’s President Luis Guillermo Solís swallows wasp

Gets my vote.

Orion’s belt-buckle Tue, 20 Jun 2017 11:45:29 +0100 Richard Carter ( In celebration of my adopted star.
In celebration of my adopted star.

Article source:

When I was about fourteen, I decided to adopt a star. I was standing on my parents’ patio on a glorious chilly evening. The stars were out in relative abundance for the suburbs. I thought I should pick a star so, wherever I saw it in future, I would be able to relate to it; to imagine it twinkling above my home.

I knew how to find the North Star, but that seemed too obvious a choice, so I sought out the short line of three evenly spaced stars I’d noticed many times before. I found them to the south-west, hanging in the darkness above the garage, and, reckoning it would be the easiest to remember, chose the middle star to be my star. I didn’t know at the time that the three stars in question comprised Orion’s Belt; and I’ve only just found out from Wikipedia that my star goes by the Arabic-derived name Alnilam, meaning string of pearls. Alnilam, it turns out, is a blue-white supergiant: the 29th brightest star in the night sky. Not bad for a humble belt-buckle.

The constellation of Orion photographed from Anglesey. Alnilam is shown dead centre.

Although the stars of Orion’s Belt look to be in a straight line, that’s only because we see them from our particular vantage point in the galaxy. In reality, Alnilam is roughly half as far away again from us as its two apparent companions, Alnitak and Mintaka: very roughly 1,340 light-years to their 800.

Just think about that for a second. In fact, actually count out one second. Go on, I mean it, I’ll wait…

In the time it takes to count a second, a beam of starlight travels 300,000 kilometres through space (that’s 186,000 miles in old money). That’s slightly farther than the most reliable car I ever owned travelled during its entire lifetime. Or, to put it another way, if you could somehow steer its course, a beam of light could travel around the earth seven-and-a-half times per second. Yet the light of Alnilam, striking our retinas when we happen to glance up at it on a chill winter evening, left that star shortly after the Romans abandoned Britain, several hundred years before the Norman Conquest, in an era we are no longer supposed to refer to as the Dark Ages. How unimaginably vast is our Milky Way Galaxy? Yet it is only one of an estimated two-trillion galaxies in the universe. Two trillion. That’s a two followed by twelve zeros: 2,000,000,000,000. How unimaginably insignificant are we in the vast non-scheme of things?


With hindsight, I suppose I could have chosen my star more carefully: the constellation of Orion isn’t visible from the UK for three months of the year, from May to July. It’s still up there, of course, but at that time of year Orion rises and sets during the hours of daylight, so is banished from our skies by the brightness of the sun.

But Orion’s absence during the northern hemisphere’s summer months makes its reappearance in our night skies in late summer and early autumn a cause for celebration. Indeed, for many years, I’ve marked my ‘official’ start of autumn by the first pre-dawn sighting of Orion over the gate at the end of our driveway. There he stands, just like last year, facing west, club raised aloft: just as he will have stood, long before the story of Orion the hunter was invented, as the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Moor above my house gazed out on the same pre-dawn sky; just as he stood almost four decades ago, that starlit evening above my parents’ garage; just as he will stand, for many years to come, when I am long gone.

Yet perhaps I shouldn’t be so sanguine about Orion’s endurance. Like everything else, the configuration of the night sky evolves with time. Constellations change shape; new stars are born; old ones die. Ultimately—very soon by astronomical timescales—my adopted star, Alnilam, is likely to go out in a blaze of glory: a massive supernova. Indeed, perhaps it already has. With the speed of light as the limiting factor for spreading news throughout the universe, Alnilam might have exploded a thousand years ago, and we still wouldn’t know a thing about it for another 300 years or so.

So maybe I should enjoy Alnilam’s pin-prick of Dark Age light in the night sky while I still can.

That’s certainly my intention.

Cunning linguistics Mon, 19 Jun 2017 11:08:29 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) A conversation with Jen about dwarfs. From a conversation with Jen this morning:

R: Did you know the correct English plural for the word dwarf is dwarfs with an F?
J: Not …V-E-S, then?
R: No—although, when he was writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, as an expert in linguistics, decided the word would be far more common in Middle Earth, so would have been corrupted through everyday usage. So he made a point of spelling the plural …V-E-S.
J: I dare say, after working that out, writing the rest of the book will have been a cinch.

Somebody buy the BBC a thesaurus Thu, 01 Jun 2017 12:50:03 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) The BBC struggles to describe the late General Manuel Antonio Noriega.

BBC (30-May-2017): Manuel Noriega, Panama ex-strongman, dies at 83

General Manuel Antonio Noriega, the former military leader of Panama, has died aged 83, officials have announced.

…Although he was never elected to office, Noriega became the de facto leader of Panama, serving a six-year tenure as military governor in the 1980s.

…But the US tired of his increasingly repressive role internally in Panama, and there were indications he was selling his services to other intelligence bodies, not to mention drug-trafficking organisations.

I'm pretty sure the word so steadfastly failing to trip off the BBC's tongue is ‘dictator’.

Newsletter No. 6: A borrowed dog Sun, 28 May 2017 14:15:54 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) woodpeckers · ambrotype portraits · W.G. Sebald · a deserted hamlet · mission creep · prime meridians · W.H. Hudson · podcasts · street photography · bonkers · tapirs · coiners Rich Text

28 MAY 2017


I’m looking after a friend’s dog for a couple of months, and am sending my friend daily photo updates to show that Millie is having a good time. Which means my Instagram and Flickr feeds have a decidedly canine feel to them at the moment.


One of the advantages of suddenly finding yourself with responsibility for a borrowed dog is that you’re forced to get off your fat arse at least once a day and go for a walk. The other day, I took Millie to see the bluebells at Hardcastle Crags, a local beauty spot. At the end of the walk, we were thrilled to see a pair of great spotted woodpeckers making several visits to their nest-hole to feed some extremely noisy chicks.

Great spotted woodpecker

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

This time, my recommendations number the same as the Muses of classical antiquity:

  1. Photographer Giles Clement’s stunning 16x20” glass ambrotype portraits made using a home-built camera and a lens from a First World War spy Zeppelin. (Link via: Bored panda.)
  2. An interview with W.G. Sebald from 1997, four years before his untimely death. I’m a huge Sebald fan, filing his books under uncategorisable, or, equally unhelpfully, Sebaldian.
  3. Photographer Stuart Petch’s notes and photos from Thorns, a deserted hamlet in upper Ribblesdale.
  4. My friend Thony Christie’s thoughts on historians’ tendency towards mission creep, leading into a review of a new book about prime meridians. (Thony fact-checked a chapter about the history of triangulation in my own forthcoming book, On the Moor. Any remaining errors are, therefore, entirely his fault.)
  5. The naturalist W.H. Hudson also features briefly in On the Moor, but, until I came across this Smithsonian Magazine article, I had no idea how influential he was.
  6. I’m addicted to podcasts. If you’ve ever wondered what the hell you’re missing, you could do far worse that listen to episode 51 of ‘Reconcilable Differences’, in which John Siracusa and Merlin Mann, two men of a certain age, fret about random stuff. Very funny.
  7. (Video) Photographer Craig Roberts visits London’s Brick Lane and Columbia Road Flower Market, showing how street photography is done.
  8. In what is perhaps a sign of the times, America finally seems to be catching on to one of my favourite British words: ‘bonkers’.
  9. To mark World Tapir Day (no, it really is a thing), my online pal Dave Whiteland released a charming, online, interactive story, Dwindle: a tapir’s tale.

Shameless plugs

Earlier this month, I was invited to the Hebden Bridge launch of Benjamin Myers’ fantastic new novel, The Gallows Pole. It’s based on the true story of the local Cragg Vale Coiners. Eighteenth-century Yorkshire meets The Sopranos: you should read it. Check out my review.

I recently joined GoodReads, a social network for book lovers. If you’re also a member, you might want to follow me via my GoodReads profile page.

Well, that dog’s not going to walk herself…

Feel free to contact me with any feedback. And please forward this newsletter to any friends you think might enjoy it, suggesting in no uncertain terms that your life would be made a whole lot simpler if they were to subscribe for themselves.

Book review: ‘The Gallows Pole’ by Benjamin Myers Mon, 22 May 2017 12:49:59 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) 18th-century Yorkshire meets the Sopranos: intrigue, betrayal, murder, and revenge in the Calder Valley. The Gallows PoleDespite my reading almost no fiction these days, there was a pretty good chance I was going to enjoy Benjamin Myers’ novel based on the true story of a notorious gang of 18th-century money counterfeiters: one of my study windows looks out across the upper Calder Valley towards Cragg Vale, where much of this novel is set; the other looks across Hebden Valley to Heptonstall Church, where the novel’s protagonist is buried.

The Gallows Pole tells the story of the Cragg Vale Coiners, an organised gang of criminals based in and around the upper Calder Valley, in what was then a remote part of England where the law held little sway. The novel is set against the backdrop of imminent industrialisation, with the threatened arrival of mills, the Rochdale Canal, and the detested turnpike (still known as ‘New Road’ where it passes through nearby Hebden Bridge).

Locally, the coiners still have something of a reputation as a band of merrie men whose debasement of the king’s coin helped feed the poor. In reality, their leader, the self-styled ‘King’ David Hartley, was far less Robin Hood than Tony Soprano: the Cragg Vale Coiners were a bunch of lawless, murderous thugs, with, as events were to prove, little to be said for them in terms of group loyalty.

All great anti-heroes require a would-be nemesis. In Hartley’s case, this came in the form of William Deighton, an excise officer charged with putting an end to the counterfeiting operation. What follows is a story of intrigue, betrayal, murder, and revenge.

The Gallows Pole is written in two narrative voices, both of which work remarkably well. The main story is written in third-person standard English with a few stylish twists to lend period authenticity. Direct speech is incorporated into the text without quotation marks, and people are always referred to by their full names, both of which devices just seem right somehow. When the coiners are gathered, the formal listing of those present, as if for the minutes, gives an appropriate Uncle Tom Cobley and all period feel.

The second narrator’s voice is that of David Hartley himself. These very short, italicised diary extracts, interspersed throughout the main narrative, are written without punctuation and are littered with contemporary slang and phonetic spellings. Usually, this sort of device annoys the hell out of me, but it works brilliantly in The Gallows Pole. If King David Hartley really had kept a diary—and don’t we all wish he had?—it surely would have read like this. Myers must have had immense fun (and given himself some severe headaches) capturing Hartley’s ‘authentic’ voice. Here is a typical example, imparting some useful advice on man-management:

Now lissen now for I tell you sum thin importent sum thin secret now When a dug misbyhayves you ponk that dug on its neb and when it misby hayves again you rub its phyz in scat and if still that dug misbyhayves a third tyme then you are doon sum thin rong so then you beet it until sum thin goes in its ays like the last ember of a dyin fyre and the spirit of the creechure will be yors and then yool have no trubble from that dug and that dug will give his lyf for you and now it nose its playce that yule have mayde for it And it will feer you an love you an protec you An that is how you run a ragged crew of desprit men That is how you run a gang that sum corl the Turvin Clippers and that uthers corl the Cragg Vayle Coiners.

Finally, I should say a word about Myers’ descriptions of the local landscape. It’s an area I know and love very much indeed—as, judging from his evocative descriptions, does Myers. I tend to be parochial in the extreme in my local walks. Reading The Gallows Pole made me want to begin roaming farther afield, exploring the upper Calder Valley in more depth, maybe even wandering into the godforsaken craggy vale that was once the haunt of a ragged crew of desprit men.

Disclosure: At the time of writing this review, I have met local author Ben Myers on two occasions. We now follow each other on various social media.

Millie Sat, 06 May 2017 09:02:40 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) A video of Stense's dog going walkies. Jen and I are looking after Stense's dog, Millie, for a couple of months. She's been with us for a week so far, and I've been sending Stense daily photos of her pooch to reassure her that I haven't been doing anything characteristically irresponsible, such as feeding Millie the rest of Daisy-May.

Anyway, yesterday I decided to send Stense a video update, to show her how Millie's getting on. And as a new video constitutes new content, I thought maybe I should post it here too:

Wearenotamused Fri, 05 May 2017 09:11:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) I woke up this morning to find one of Carolyn's random text-message queries awaiting me. I woke up this morning to find one of Carolyn's random text-message queries awaiting me:

C: What is the plural of Hippopotamus?
R: Hippopotwomuses.
C: With a w?
R: It was a joke… Plural: HippopoTWOmuses!
C: That's a very early in the morning joke!

Rare treat Sun, 30 Apr 2017 14:20:05 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Just about the only benefit of spending hundreds of hours chasing your farmer friend's cattle across field and moor is that, every once in a while, you get to eat your arch-nemesis. Just about the only benefit (other than the highly dubious one of ‘getting some exercise’) of spending hundreds of hours chasing your farmer friend's cattle across field and moor is that, every once in a while, you get to eat your arch-nemesis:


Two sirloin steaks formerly known as ‘Daisy-May’ yesterday.

Daisy-May had it coming, believe me.

Best steaks we ever ate. (And I'm not just saying that.)

Newsletter No. 5: Incongruous owl Tue, 25 Apr 2017 13:24:16 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) dawn chorus · Simon Armitage · the invention of the telescope · huge, sprawling collaborations · Withnail & I · book smells · re-assembling Darwin’s research notes · converting walks into words · Daniel Dennett · writing letters · humanist politics · dentistry with stone tools · analysing penguin poo · Melissa Harrison · Robert Macfarlane · swallows Rich Text

25 APRIL 2017


As always round our way, the dawn chorus last Monday was initiated by a blackbird: half-hearted melodic chortles at first, but quickly growing in confidence. Then came the robin, great tits, blue tits, and wood pigeon, followed by a wren’s sonic fusillade, the underrated twittering of a dunnock, and the monotonous U-NI-TED! U-NI-TED! soccer-chant of a collared dove (he must have travelled up from London for the match). In the space of 15 minutes, the chorus had grown to a full-blown oratorio. But then came something I’d never heard in a dawn chorus before: the incongruous kee-wick of a tawny owl calling from our Scots pine. It was good to hear old brown owl contributing to the jocund din.

Early Spring has also seen a pair of rabbits take up residence in the garden, and a roe deer make a rare early morning visit to the field in front of the house. But still we anxiously await the swallows. Twitter contacts have begun to report their arrivals far and wide. And a friend in Perthshire positively squeeeeed in delight as the first swallows returned to her neighbourhood while we were talking on the phone last Saturday. But still no swallows in the West Yorkshire Pennines. They always seem to arrive later here than elsewhere. Perhaps they don’t relish the climb. But it surely can’t be very much longer…

Sunny bunny
A sunny bunny waiting for some swallows recently.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

Like protons in the nucleus of a silicon atom, this newsletter’s recommendations number 14:

  1. Simon Armitage: ‘Language is my enemy—I spend my life battling with it’
    Poet Simon Armitage on his love-hate relationship with writing.
  2. How many great minds does it take to invent a telescope?
    My friend and history-of-science curmudgeon Thony Christie on how, as so often happens in science and technology, many different people contributed to the invention of the telescope.
  3. …and it’s not just in science and technology. In this uplifting video, which employs the surprising analogy of the world’s biggest ball of paint, John Green discusses how art and writing and most other human endeavours are best imagined as huge, sprawling collaborations.
  4. Withnail and I: 30 years on, it’s the perfect film for Brexit Britain
    Ben Myers on Withnail & I: a film set in the Sixties, made in the Eighties and claimed by the Nineties, but which, 30 years on, is a film for our times.
  5. Can you judge a book by its odour?
    How distinctive book smells say something about how and when a book was made, and where it has been.
  6. How Darwin Evolved: 25,540 Paper Fragments Tell the Story
    On how computer experts are re-assembling Darwin’s research notes.
  7. Putting walks into words
    Author Linda Cracknell on converting walks into words: a subject very close to my heart. [See also my review of Cracknell’s Doubling Back.]
  8. Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul
    I have owned two of Daniel Dennett’s books for many years, but never managed to get into them. This fascinating profile of the philosopher made me think I should give his writing another chance. He sounds like a thoroughly good egg.
  9. Should you feel sad about the demise of the handwritten letter? asks Siobhan Phillips… As someone who has been writing letters to the same friend on a regular basis for over 26 years, originally as word-processed printouts, nowadays as emails, my response has to be an unqualified ‘Not necessarily!’
  10. A politics of humanism can help build a just, free and more equal world
    Disillusioned with all political parties following the EU Referendum, I decided to take some positive action by (finally) joining the British Humanist Association, which campaigns politely and positively on matters that seem important to me. This article explains how more humanist politics could make the world a better place.
  11. Oldest tooth filling was made by an Ice Age dentist in Italy
    Dentistry with stone tools, I kid you not.
  12. A Tale of Cataclysm, Written in Penguin Guano
    What analysing penguin poo can tell us about historical penguin populations.
  13. On Aston’s Eyot
    A moving piece by Melissa Harrison about returning to her native Oxford to finish writing a novel. [See also my review of Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time.]
  14. Violent spring: The nature book that predicted the future
    Robert Macfarlane remembers JA Baker’s The Peregrine 50 years after its publication.

Shameless plugs

A few days ago, I published an article whose third draft had been languishing on my hard drive for several months. I had dithered about publishing it because I thought others might not recognise the wonderful sensation I was trying to describe, for which, as the article explains, the word ‘spiritual’ won’t do.

I finally decided to publish my article having read Annie Dillard’s wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which contained a short passage that made me realise I might not be alone in experiencing these sensations. You can read my review of her fantastic, Pulitzer-Prize-winning book here.

Since the last newsletter, I have also reviewed the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, and Built on Bones by Brenna Hassett, which describes what archaeology can tell us about how human bodies were affected by our move from hunter-gatherer groups to agricultural and, later, urban societies.


…A SWALLOW, just now, gliding in the stiff northerly above the field behind our house!

The swallows are back!

‘Spiritual’ won’t do Sun, 23 Apr 2017 19:01:42 +0100 Richard Carter ( In which I seek a better word to describe a profoundly uplifting sensation.
In which I seek a better word to describe a profoundly uplifting sensation.

Article source:

There’s this wonderful sensation I get from time to time. I’m hoping you do too, otherwise I’m going to sound like a total weirdo as I try to describe it.

I’m usually outdoors when it happens, often at some place that means a lot to me: approaching the trig point on the Moor above my home, for example; or gazing out to sea from my favourite headland. It also happened, totally unexpectedly, the first time I saw Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence, and when I first heard a full-blown orchestra playing live.

But it can happen in the most mundane situations too, such as at our compost heap after dark. I’ll be standing there, holding my small bucket of potato peelings, looking out at the lights across the valley, when, without warning, some sort of switch gets flipped and everything goes into ultra-high-definition. My senses seem magnified somehow. I suddenly become far more aware of the world around me: of the lonesome dog-barks echoing in the distance; of the vastness of the sky, and of the darkness between the stars; and of the cold air sending goose-pimples erupting along my forearms. It’s very much like that feeling you get when you come out of the cinema, back into the light and noise of the real world, and everything feels so utterly, well, real.

I’ve mentioned these experiences to friends. They claim to know exactly what I’m on about. They say they have them too. But they then almost inevitably go on to use the word ‘spiritual’. Which makes me wonder whether we’re talking about the same thing at all. The word ‘spiritual’ is precisely the wrong word, you see. No, that’s not it at all.

It’s not just the word’s religious connotations. As a devout atheist, I take great exception to such profound and uplifting experiences being hijacked in the name of religion. But that’s not my real problem with the word. ‘Spiritual’ is derived from the Latin ‘spirare’, meaning to breathe. In this respect, it’s entirely appropriate: the sensations I’ve tried to describe are breathtaking. The same Latin root also gives us the word ‘inspirational’. Perfect. But the word ‘spiritual’, to me at least, clearly implies the non-physical. Which is where it totally misses the point.

The thing is, you couldn’t get more physical than these sensations I’m trying to describe. When I reach the trig point on top of the Moor, and the whole hi-def thing kicks in, I suddenly become hyper-conscious of the material nature of my existence. This is not the Matrix. This is no dream. I am here. This is now. The air filling my lungs is cool. It is made of molecules. So am I. So is everything else. There is rock beneath the heather. I can taste the sea on the wind. All this stuff is real: water and rock; flesh and bone; physics and chemistry. Real is all there is. It’s us and the universe, my friend. Accept no alternatives.

Trig point
Trig Point S4643, on the Moor.

I’ve struggled to come up with a more appropriate adjective than ‘spiritual’ to describe episodes like these. The trouble is, the religiously inclined and the new-agers have already (mis)appropriated all the best ones: ‘enlightening’, ‘illuminating’, ‘uplifting’. For a while, I quite liked the word ‘lucid’, until it occurred to me that the same word is also used to describe dreams, which again misses the point entirely.

What I’m trying to describe is the sensory equivalent of an adrenaline rush. Something that jolts you out of yourself into the physical universe. A reality rush, if you will.

Do you know what the hell I’m on about? Can you think of a better term than ‘spiritual’ to describe these experiences? One which can’t possibly be misconstrued as endorsing any sort of belief in the non-physical or the supernatural? One which embraces the physical reality of such astonishing sensations?

Or is it just me being a total weirdo after all?

First in line Sat, 22 Apr 2017 00:43:32 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Trump puts EU ahead of Britain total non-shock! Compare and contrast:

Telegraph (09-Jan-2017): Boris Johnson says Britain will be first in line for US trade deal after meeting with Donald Trump's team and Paul Ryan
Britain is "first in line" for a trade deal with the US, Boris Johnson has said after talks with Donald Trump's senior advisers.

The closeness of the relationship between the UK and US will not change once the president-elect takes office, the Foreign Secretary insisted.

Times Trump puts EU ahead

Why, it's almost as if Brexit liar Boris Johnson either hasn't a clue what he's talking about, or is, well, a liar.

Or possibly both.


Boris Johnson recently.

Paintstaking Fri, 14 Apr 2017 10:31:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Paint frivolity. Apologies for the dearth of updates recently, but I have been spending what seems like the last 14 years redecorating our guest bedroom.

I'll spare you the details, but one of the (many, many) reasons this job has taken so long is that we rather stupidly chose to paint the walls a totally different colour from the ceiling, skirting-boards, window-frame, and doors. Which means there have been an awful lot of straight lines that needed painting by hand, for which I have had to resort to a minuscule ½-inch, flat-ended Rowney art-brush:

Paint and brush

Yesterday, I was perched on top of a ladder, painstakingly edging the window-frame when the doorbell rang. It was Derek the plumber, who had come to re-plumb our downstairs loo.

“Doing a spot of painting, Richard?”
“I'm re-decorating the guest room. It's taken bloody months.”
“I'm not bloody surprised, with that brush!”

Book review: ‘Built on Bones’ by Brenna Hassett Fri, 07 Apr 2017 15:35:06 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) 15,000 years of urban life and death. Built on BonesBuilt on Bones explores how archaeologists interpret dental and skeletal remains. In particular, it examines what we can infer from changes in humans’ bodies associated with our move from hunter-gatherer groups to agricultural and, later, urban societies. Or, as Brenna Hassett puts it: ‘This book is about human adaptation in the face of human invention.’

It’s a fascinating subject for a book, and bioarchaeologist Hassett is well qualified to write about it. The book contained some, to me, surprising revelations. For example, throughout the world, the adoption of agriculture seemed to go hand-in-hand with a decrease in physical stature. This could indicate that agricultural diets were not as nutritious as hunter-gatherer diets—although Hassett is quick to pour scorn on the current fad for so-called ‘palaeo’ diets.

Hassett explains how our move to urban lifestyle, while conveying certain benefits, also seems to have had numerous drawbacks—especially for those lower down the pecking order. She includes several chapters on how urban living led to new forms of violence, and encouraged different types of disease. All of which sounds rather gloomy—which perhaps explains Hassett’s liberal use of (a few too many) footnote-based jokes.

Built on Bones covers a surprisingly interesting subject in an entertaining manner. If I have one criticism it is that, in the early chapters in particular, Hassett often writes extremely long, heavily nested sentences. So much so that, on a number of occasions, I finally reached the end of a sentence only to discover I had entirely forgotten what it had been about. It’s a flaw I have tried to overcome, with limited success, in my own writing. (Handy hint: Try reading your sentences out loud. If you begin to asphyxiate before the end, they’re almost certainly too long.)

Occasional epic sentences aside, an entertaining read.

Book review: ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ by Annie Dillard Wed, 05 Apr 2017 08:56:58 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Pulitzer-Prize-winning ruminations on the natural world. Pilgrim at Tinker CreekI put off reading the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for longer than I should. I’d gathered it was a rather spiritual book, and I seldom enjoy such writing. But my misapprehensions were misplaced: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is an absolute delight.

Annie Dillard muses about our relationship with the natural world, and how the natural world came about. Yes, there is plenty of spiritual stuff in there that I don’t agree with, but it is written in such a way that you’re never entirely sure where Dillard herself stands on the subject—if, indeed, she has come to any conclusion. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is very much a thinking-aloud book: Dillard is writing this stuff to try to get her head around it. Which is one of the best reasons anyone can have for writing anything.

Dillard is also extremely good at writing succinctly from what I would describe as a more scientific viewpoint. A handful of gems that stood out:

  • [Re. the old chestnut about a tree falling in the forest] …beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can try to do is be there.
  • More than one insect […] is an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god.
  • Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.
  • That insects have adapted is obvious. Their failures to adapt, however, are dazzling. It is hard to believe that nature is partial to such dim-wittedness.
  • That there are so many details seems to be the most important and visible fact about creation. If you can’t see the forest for the trees, then look at the trees; when you’ve looked at enough trees, you’ve seen a forest, you’ve got it.
  • Evolution, of course, is the vehicle of intricacy. The stability of simple forms is the sturdy base from which more complex stable forms might arise, forming in turn more complex forms, and so on.
  • Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me.
  • We have not yet encountered and god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet.

At one point in the book, Dillard recounts sitting outside a remote petrol station sipping coffee while patting a puppy. She describes the sudden sensation of being in the present. This section resonated immensely with me: it’s a wonderful sensation I’ve experienced many times myself, totally out of the blue. I even have an unpublished article about the phenomenon, which has been sitting in my drafts folder for a couple of years while I wondered what on earth to do with it. I was worried nobody would have a clue what the hell I was one about. But Annie Dillard, for one, clearly would, so perhaps there might be others. Maybe I should get the damn article out there once and for all.

A brilliant book. Highly recommended.