Archive for the ‘books’ Category

We often look at the world this way….just a peek through a narrow gap. We can see a bit this way. It’s a way of being focused. If we narrow our gaze we can ignore everything except what’s in the target zone of our attention.

You know we have “two brains”, right? I mean the recognition that we have a cerebral cortex which is divided into two, non-symmetrical parts. Why do you think the brain is like this? Why not just have one, whole brain? Why did evolution prefer to develop the cortex in two significantly different hemispheres?

Well a lot of people have tried to claim that the right half does these things, and the left these other things….like the right is what we use to “do art” and the left is what we use to “do logic”. But we know that’s not true. The brain is not like a clock, a car, or a computer. It doesn’t function with one part doing “this” all by itself whilst other parts do “that”.

But Iain McGilchrist figured it out. In his “The Master and His Emissary” he lays out what I find to be a convincing thesis – each hemisphere engages with the world differently – in other words, each hemisphere gives us a different way of approaching, understanding and interacting with, the world.

What the left hemisphere allows us to do is like what you see in this image. We use it to narrow our gaze. We use it to focus in on “parts”, to analyse them, label them, categorise them, in order to try and “grasp” and manipulate them. The right hemisphere, on the other hand (see what I did there?), is used to enable a broad gaze. We use it to focus on the connections, to explore the bonds and relationships, to discover what’s new, and to see things in the broader view, or in “the whole”.

What amazes me about this is that we use both halves simultaneously pretty much all the time. They are in constant interaction, giving us the ability to “integrate” and “synthesise” what they focus on.

The trouble comes when we fail to pay enough attention to one of the halves – actually, in our modern world, it’s the right hemisphere we fail to attend to sufficiently. We get stuck in our world view of seeing reality as composed of separate parts which we can label, categorise and control. We get hooked on a mechanistic model. And, well, reality is not like that. That picture is incomplete and can lead us astray.

So, we do need these abilities to focus narrowly, to separate out elements, analyse them and organise that knowledge, but we ALSO need to be constantly aware of the big picture. We also need to see the contexts, the connections and the circumstances. It’s this that enables us to see uniqueness.

When it comes to this pandemic, we need to understand and analyse the COVID-19 virus. It will be a real boost to us to discover how to improve our treatment of people who are infected with it to try and reduce the potential damage they might suffer. But we need to use that other half of the brain too and see what the circumstances are in which this pandemic has arisen. We need to join up the dots. We need to see the connections and the contexts.

Isn’t it clear that one reason why this pandemic is so damaging is that we don’t have enough good health care? I think this issue is the same whether you live in the UK, France, the US, Spain, Belgium….you name it. It’s not the sheer number of people who are suffering from significant effects of this virus – after all, it seems about 80% of those who catch it don’t even get any symptoms. It’s that the small percentage of people who DO suffer serious effects from it still constitute numbers potentially too big for our health services to cope with.

Why do you think there is this constant message about “protect the NHS” in the UK? The NHS shouldn’t need “protecting” from sick people! It’s very purpose is to treat them. But the truth is there aren’t enough staff, there aren’t enough hospital beds, there isn’t enough equipment, there isn’t enough PPE, there aren’t enough testing materials, or laboratory resources.

There isn’t enough decent, safe social care available for the elderly. There isn’t sufficient support for people whose incomes are hit by forced closures of their workplaces. There isn’t enough decent housing. There isn’t enough decent nutrition because the current model of industrialised farming and processed food production is feeding both obesity and nutritional deficiencies of important vitamins and minerals which are needed for healthy immune systems.

And so on……

Unless we use our whole brains and address the underlying weaknesses, vulnerabilities, insufficiencies and injustices in our societies we will find not just this pandemic hard to handle, but we’ll set ourselves up for more of the same.

It’s time to change.

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Here in Europe autumn is a season of great change where we move from summer to winter. One of the most astonishing phenomena of this season is migration. Look at this fabulous flying V of cranes heading south! I wish I could let you hear the incredible noise they make, but my little phone recording really doesn’t do them justice.

These are only one of the species of bird which migrates. The hoopoe and the redstart have already left my garden and I still have no idea where they go or how they manage to find their way back to exactly this small square of the Earth every Spring. The other birds I see around here flying in similar great V shapes are geese, but I haven’t seen any passing by yet.

Don’t you think it’s an astonishing phenomenon, this ability of these little creatures to navigate and fly across thousands of miles from one exact place to another? As far as I know nobody has managed to fully understand how they do that. But it’s also amazing to me that they have the energy and the determination to make the huge effort of flight over these enormous journeys.

Birds, of course, are not the only creatures to migrate. Many others do, from fish to butterflies. So it’s an important, significant natural phenomenon of Life. Many many more creatures migrate in the sense of moving from their original habitats to other ones, but don’t do this regular back and forth seasonal migration. In fact whilst millions of creatures live their entire lives in on physical location, or niche, millions of others either travel long distances within their lifetimes or over generations…….like humans, for example!

The BBC show, “Who do you think you are?” is often fascinating, tracing someone’s ancestors over centuries past. Normally, the stories take the subject to several countries, and as they tend to focus on only a small number of this person’s ancestors in a one hour show, we know that if they explored more fully they’d find origins in multiple and diverse locations.

The only living creatures to experience nation-state borders and barriers to this freedom of movement are human beings. Why do we do that? Why do we erect these utterly artificial and pretty arbitrary barriers to human movement, if it’s in our nature, as it is in so many other species, to migrate?

I find the rules and regulations around “citizenship” difficult, confusing and unjust. I don’t understand why two families living in the same street, with children in the same schools, adults working, shopping and enjoying life in the same offices, factories, stores, cinemas, theatres and sports halls, should have different rights and responsibilities. It sets up discrimination, prejudice and resentments.

Why don’t we change that? Change it to habitats. Why can’t we have the same rules, rights, obligations and responsibilities for all the inhabitants of the same habitats? Call that habitat a nation state if you must, but the important point is to treat all inhabitants equally under the same law.

I know that the whole issue of borders and migration is a difficult one, and I’ve read Rutger Bergman’s “Utopia for Realists” where he advocates no borders. Maybe that’s an aim worth having, but I think it will be a long and difficult road to get there. However, would it be so difficult to argue that all the inhabitants of the same habitat be given the same right and obligations?

This isn’t an issue of “nationality”, not even of an individual’s life story of several “homes”, or of ancestors from particular areas of planet Earth. It’s about how we live together in the present time, based on the present, not the past. It’s about developing fraternity, solidarity, equality, justice, fairness, and freedom. Can’t we learn this from Nature?

What do you think of this idea?

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I saw this on the wall of a church in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in Southwest France. A “rencontre”, as you can probably tell from the drawing, is a meeting. I haven’t seen this portrayed in other churches but I really liked that it was displayed so prominently in this one.

For me, the key to understanding Life is revealed in connections, relationships, or bonds. In fact, it is revealed in a very special kind of connection – one which increases “integration”.

Integration is “the formation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts”. I think this is easily understood when you think of the human body. We have several organs, from a heart, a liver, a pair of kidneys, a pair of lungs, a brain, and so on. All of these separate, distinct, structures have their own particular functions to carry out and they must carry them out in a way which is more than harmonious…..they must act to promote mutual benefit. The “integrative” connections exemplify collaboration and co-operation. Our organs do not compete with each other….not for energy, food, or protection. Not in a healthy state, anyway.

So, here is the basis of natural health – harmonious, well-integrated, collaborative relationships between distinctly different parts.

You can scale that up – so that a healthy society is a diverse one composed of unique individuals who relate to each other in mutually beneficial ways. You can scale it up further to consider whole ecosystems, or even the global biome, and see that this is the basis of Nature.

Much has been made of the role played by competition in Nature, and in particular in the story of evolution. But, competition has only ever been one part of the story. Without collaboration, without the creation of mutually beneficial bonds, Life would not exist, and it certainly wouldn’t evolve.

When I see this image of a “rencontre” I’m also reminded of the story of the Little Prince and the fox, as told by Saint-Exupery in his “The Little Prince”. In particular I remember the passage where the fox asks the Little Prince to “tame” him – by which he means to create a bond between them, and gives the example of rose which the Little Prince tended to in his home. The Little Prince claims that his rose, of all the roses in the world, is special to him. He cares for her, looks after her, and feels for her. What makes her special is the bond – the bond of care. The fox points out that if he and the Little Prince form such a bond, then they will be very upset when they have to part – because these bonds of care matter to us. They matter to us more than anything.

We can’t have too much of this type of connection in our world. In fact, we need a whole lot more of them – we need the bonds of “integration”, the “mutually beneficial” ones, the bonds of “care”.

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When you look at a sky like this you know a storm is coming. When it’s as dramatic as this it can be quite intimidating. At very least I know to prepare a little, unplugging my router and other equipment in case it gets fried by lightning (and, yes, it’s happened once since I came to live here). We also have an issue with heavy rain overwhelming the drains and then pouring down the driveway so another preparation is sandbags along the bottom of the garage door (and, yes, it’s happened more than once since I came to live here).

But sometimes, even a dramatic sky like this just passes over with hardly any rain, and no significant thunder and lightning. It seems impossible to predict at a local level. Even when the storm does come, it doesn’t last. Maybe just half an hour or so, or sometimes an hour or two, but usually it’s pretty brief.

I know that it’ll be different in different parts of the world, and I’m also aware of the absolutely catastrophic effects that dramatic, severe weather can have….most recently here down in the Valley of Roya just north of Nice where whole roads and parts of villages were washed away. Tragic.

I’ve also seen news coverage of the after effects of that storm, and as in other parts of the world when such calamities occur, what you see is dozens, if not hundreds, of people immediately appearing to do what they can to help….helping people to safety, cleaning up, making food, donating food, water and clothes. It is impressive. It is very impressive. You see it every time, no matter which country it happens in. You know some people don’t have a very good opinion of human beings and I know we can be an aggressive, exploitative species, but what impresses me so much more is this ordinary straightforward instinct to help and to work together to relieve the suffering of others.

Fundamentally, I believe that people are good. That’s my starting point. If things don’t turn out that way with an individual or a group then I adjust my attitude and behaviour to stay safe, to protect myself. But I start by believing in human goodness. In fact, I don’t know how I could have worked as a doctor for forty years without believing that. Everybody seems to be “worth saving”. Everybody who needs help “deserves” it. I know it’s complex and I’m not trying to be simplistic or naive here, but I really do believe that your experience of life changes when you start from a belief that people are fundamentally good.

I recently came across Rutger Bergman’s latest book, Human Kind, and he takes exactly this idea as his starting point….what if we believed that humans were basically good, instead of believing they are basically evil, or bad? I recommend it. It’s worth a read.

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I saw this framed poster a couple of years ago in a shop in Copenhagen. I kinda wish I’d bought it! It’s a simple but elegant representation of something which has become my core model when I consider reality – networks.

When people say everything is connected to everything else they are right and the easiest way to both visualise and explore that is the network.

A picture of a network is simply some nodes connected by lines. The nodes might be people in your life, including you, with each line representing relationships. The nodes might be cells in your body, some more directly interconnected than others but all living in each other’s influences. The nodes might be neurones in your brain, each of which is connected to up to 50,000 other neurones! Can you imagine that? It’s literally mind boggling.

Networks can map thoughts, feelings and actions. They can help us trace the influences on any single moment cast by the past and the future if each node is an experience, real or imagined.

We have two halves to our cerebral cortex and it seems the left half is particularly good at noticing and exploring the nodes – the parts, the elements, the items, components or data. The right half, on the other hand, is particularly good at noticing the links, the bonds, connections and relationships.

Think of the constellations in the night sky, each twinkling star a node. When I look out now I see Orion has reappeared and makes his way each night across the winter sky from east to west. He’s been gone all summer and now he’s back I know winter is coming. But how do I see Orion? By tracing the invisible lines which connect the individual dots (stars).

When I first read about complexity science it was this model of networks which made it all clear to me, and, in particular, learning about the non-linear nature of the relationships between the nodes in living creatures helped me grasp the concept of the “complex adaptive system”…..which shone a bright light of understanding on everything from self-healing, to uniqueness.

If you’d like to explore this subject a bit more, here are some of the best books I’ve read about this concept of networks, connections and links.

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I’ve got a shelf on one of my bookcases where I keep some of the books which have most significantly changed the way I think. OK, to be honest, there are too many books in that category to fit on one shelf but I do like the little collection I’ve gathered together there. I think of them as sources of light – they have all shone some light of illumination for me – and they still have the power to do that.

I thought of one of the insights I gained from those books when I looked at this photo I took in a museum in San Sebastian. It’s a photo of a window, but isn’t it a strange kind of window? I mean, you can’t see anything out of it…..you can’t see the outside world from inside the room. But then I thought, what it is doing is letting the light in. What it’s doing is illuminating the room, changing what and how you see the world around you as you stand inside this room. And it isn’t just any old window, is it? It’s not just a plain rectangle of clear glass. It’s filtering the light, softening it, changing it, before it enters the room. The window might be passive, but it’s still actively changing the experience of being in this room. Being in this room would be different if the window was different.

All that got me thinking about flow, because that’s one of the key insights I gleaned from some of the books on my special books shelf……that all that exists emerges from within a constant flow – a flow of material substances (atoms, molecules, compounds etc), a flow of energies (light waves, sound waves, heat, gravity, strong and weak forces of attraction etc), and flow of information (symbols, words, language etc) All three of those flows are modified by contexts, changed by the world around the perceiving, experiencing subject.

I find that becoming aware of these flows makes me appreciate the world more, makes me wonder more, makes me delight more. I love to look for the connections, for the relationships and bonds between each of us, and between us and the non-human world. I love to consider the directions of these flows – to visualise the flow of materials, energies and information which are surging through my being – and to consider how they are changed within me – how they are modified just because I exist – how they are modified by the choices I make.

That makes me aware of my role as a window in other people’s worlds too. How do I illuminate (or shade) the worlds of others? How do I modify these flows and send them onwards to enter the lives of others?

Because one thing is for sure – I don’t exist in isolation – I emerge from within these three genres of flow and I affect the lives of others as I modify and/or pass on these molecules, energies, words, stories, images and ideas. So maybe I should pay attention to how I am living and how I am interacting with all these currents, these waves, these whole rivers of flow.

Maybe I should be aware of what kind of window onto the world I am, and what kind of window you are too. How do we change the rooms/communities/worlds we each live in?

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Here in Europe the school year is starting and for most children they haven’t been to school since about March or April because of this pandemic. Although we know now that children under the age of 14 seem to be almost unaffected by COVID-19 there is a lot of anxiety about children spreading the virus through the community, and, perhaps more specifically, to the adults who work in the schools. So each country has been making cautious preparations for the re-opening of its schools, looking at everything from cleaning regimes, the use of hand gels and masks, and the way children spend their time in the school buildings.

Out of all this, at least in the UK, has emerged a concept of “bubbles”. The idea is to have children spend most of their school day with a small group of other children and teachers…..often much smaller than a regular class size. The same concept of “bubbles” has also been used for the wider community in the UK, with lockdown rules easing gradually to allow slightly more people to interact on a daily basis – two households meeting up, then three perhaps; limitations to the number of people who can gather in any one place but allowing particular groups or families to meet up and spend regular time together.

I think it’s an interesting idea. And, as this photo shows, a potentially beautiful one. This photo is of breaking waves on a beach in Western France where the land meets the Atlantic. The bubbles forming in the surf are just gorgeous, aren’t they?

It strikes me that this bubbles idea highlights a major issue for our societies and the way we organise our daily lives. It’s the issue of size. Mass gatherings, mass transport, mass tourism, have been shown to be amongst the most vulnerable points for us…..the circumstances which lead to most infections. The social distancing measures that each country has brought in have been based on the understanding that the more you keep people together in closed spaces the more the disease spreads.

So now we are seeing a huge increase in “home working”, and, it would seem, a large number of people find they actually prefer that to spending time every day packed onto buses or trains with hundreds of strangers, then working all day in the shared spaces of offices. People are learning to live locally, enjoying their local parks, shops, cafes etc now, instead of traveling long distances to share time with masses of strangers in huge workplaces, shopping centres and so on.

I’ve decided to re-read a book which made a huge impact on me when I young – “Small is Beautiful” by E F Schumacher. It’ll be interesting to revisit it in the light of what we’ve learned since it was written in 1974, and in the light of our experience of this pandemic. What I remember of the book is the key point that big is not best…..that we should try to create societies at human scales instead of around mass production and mass consumption.

Maybe the “new normal” will involve a lot less “mass” anything – maybe we will move towards a more human scale everywhere, overturning the industrialised principles of the last century to abandon so called “efficiencies of scale” (which have probably only ever been useful in the manufacture and delivery of products). Maybe we will start to create smaller schools, smaller classes, smaller hospitals, smaller communities. Maybe we will move towards more diversity and less uniformity.

We are more able to do that now. We now understand that complex systems are like vast interconnected networks of nodes and links. We know that the most robust and most resilient systems are diverse and adaptable. We know that distributed power and responsibility produces more sustainable systems and organisations than hierarchical, command and control, massively scaled ones.

Integration is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts. It’s how the body works. Not with a command centre, but with interconnected, responsive, open networks. It’s how Nature works, through inter-dependent, diverse elements within ecosystems.

Is this our model for a “new normal”?

Human scale. Small. Diverse, open and healthily inter-connected? Can we see a future way to live in this beautiful image of bubbles?

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Yesterday I shared a post about two forms of growth….unfurling (unfolding, opening, flourishing or blossoming) and connecting (reaching out to make bonds, relationships and links).

Today I came across a couple of photos from my garden which show both of these processes occurring at the same time. In this first photo you can see how the tendril or creeper which is reaching out is doing so in a kind of spiralling or un-spiralling way. It doesn’t consider that a straight line is the shortest distance between any two points! Perhaps there is something to learn from this – a sort of melange of meandering and spiralling around.

But what really struck me was this photo because I took a close up of these beautiful spirals and because I was focussing on the near distance the background has gone nicely blurred (something photographers call Bokeh I believe!) – but, wait! Look more closely! Look at the centre of the spiral which is in the bottom left corner of this image!

Through that spiral the distance suddenly becomes clear as crystal.

I don’t know what you think, but that reminded me of my favourite “And not or” theme – when you take BOTH of these processes of growth together suddenly you can see the world more clearly!

If you’re interested to read more about “And not or” check out my book.

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Here’s where I’m for “efficiency” – in machines and in situations where you can accurately predict the outcomes.

Here’s where I’m against “efficiency” – in human situations. Human beings, all other living creatures, Nature and the environment are all complex, open systems. You cannot predict the outcomes with accuracy and certainty from any starting point. For three reasons – change is constant (nothing stays the same), everything is connected so subject to unpredicted influences, and the phenomenon of “emergence” where a complex system develops new characteristics and behaviours which couldn’t have been predicted from its prior state.

Everywhere you look in Nature you find something called “redundancy” – natural systems have more checks and balances, more options in play, than logic would lead you to believe was either necessary or “efficient”. This is the key to their robustness.

As Professor Margaret Heffernan, author of “Uncharted”, points out, aircraft are built with more control systems than they “need”. They have more engines than they “need”. It’s these backups, alternatives and “redundancies” which make a plane robust. She clarifies the difference between “resilience” which is the ability to recover, and “robustness” which is the ability to avoid failure in the first place.

Austerity economics plus managerial philosophies of “efficiency” plus neoliberal politics created the perfect conditions for the pandemic to be a disaster. In many, many countries the health care services had been cut to the bone. They weren’t robust. In many countries social care services had been cut to the bone. They weren’t robust either. In many countries industry, employment conditions, education…..you name it, had all been pared back, trimmed down, downsized, made “more efficient” by under-resourcing them, failing to replace staff who left, and, in fact, doing the exact opposite of developing and strengthening any of them.

How do we cope better with the next pandemic?

Well a good place to start would be to set our sights on “robustness” instead of “efficiency”. After all, in human beings and in all of Nature, the future cannot be predicted, the exact outcomes cannot be known. We are not machines.

Ok, you’re asking, what’s all that got to do with a table of pumpkins at a market? Well, that photo is from a fabulous Saturday morning farmers market in Capetown, and I love this display of diversity and abundance. I love how DIFFERENT they all are! No standardisation by size, shape of colour. Nature is like that. Diversity, abundance and redundancy are key features of healthy natural systems.

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In several parts of France, usually along a river bank, you might find “bouquinistes”….second hand, and antiquarian booksellers, each with a wooden box, or a number of wooden boxes, which contain their books for sale. They close these up and lock them when they aren’t there, and open them up for browsing and sales while, usually, they sit nearby on a camp chair, or in small clusters with other bouquinistes, until somebody appears to want to buy something.

The most famous are in Paris, and the Seine has even been described as “the only river in the world which runs between two bookshelves”. The Parisian ones are the first ones I saw but these photos of mine are from another town, in the West of France. The term applies a lot more widely than just to the ones with the boxes along the river banks, however. You’ll often see a “bouquiniste” advertised and usually it’s a second hand, and/or antiquarian bookseller’s shop in a town centre.

I think their highly visible presence says something about French culture though. Books remain hugely popular in France. So are magazines and graphic novels. In fact, pretty much every town has a “Maison de la Presse” or something similar with a huge range of weekly and monthly magazines covering an incredible range of subjects, from hobbies, politics, design and art, to science, philosophy, history and geography. I just love those shops. There is something special for me about the way French magazines are produced. The graphic art, use of photography, diagrams and images are just superb. And there are plenty to choose from if you want to learn about something. I delight in the fact that so many aren’t “dumbed down” but assume readers with some intelligence and education.

I know there’s an ongoing debate about the subject of e-books. Some people love them, others hate them. I’m in neither camp but I certainly have my issues with e-books – number one being that they tend to be tied to specific “platforms” and you can neither give them away nor sell them second hand once you’ve read them. I don’t like that the only model for most e-books is rental, not ownership. However, I do read a fair number of non-fiction books as e-books. I love being able to highlight passages with my finger then use the references later when I am writing. In fact, that’s probably my favourite feature. I very rarely read fiction as an e-book, but I’m not really sure why!

Well, you know me, my favourite phrase is “and not or”. That’s exactly my position with books. I have LOADS of hardback and paperback books. I buy new, and I buy second hand. But I have also read a lot of “Kindle” books, and enjoy listening to audiobooks using “Audible” (especially when cutting the grass, or travelling in my car).

I retired from the NHS in Scotland where I’d lived and worked my whole life up until I was 60, then I sold up and emigrated to here, Nouvelle Aquitaine, in South West France. One of the many reasons I had for moving here was language and reading. I wanted to live part of my life in another language, and French was the one I was at least a bit familiar with. But I was also attracted to the French cultural tradition of books and learning. In fact, I often find I learn something in a French article which refers to a writer, thinker, scientist or whoever who is English speaking, Italian, Spanish, German or African (to name a few!). I then go exploring, perhaps reading further works by that author in their native English, or translated into English. However, I frequently seem to be able to find French translations of non-English speaking authors who have never been translated into English.

Books, magazines, and newspapers, in a second language have opened doors for me, widened and deepened my knowledge and understanding in ways I don’t think would have happened if I’d spent my whole life in a single-language culture.

How about you?

Do you read and/or speak more than one language? What’s been your experience of that? Have you found that it opens up whole vistas of knowledge and thought? Have you found that it’s brought you experiences you think would have been impossible if you’d remained with only your Mother Tongue?

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