Saturday, 16 July 2022

Day 307: Looking on the bright side

It occurred to me recently that in this 'How to finish a book' series I've tended to write mostly when I'm feeling negative about the work - to berate myself, or create excuses about other stuff I've been busy with, or just defiantly state how far my output has subceeded my plans.  I consciously intended to do a bit of that, at the outset. I like the recent trend of academics talking about all the rejections and failed experiments they've endured, to balance out the normal misleading bias towards only talking about successes. Plus, I think it's important for parents especially to be real about just what they're up against when they try to do more than just wipe stuff up and dispense snacks.

On the other hand, I might have gone too far and given the impression that my book is way behind schedule, that I never get anything done.

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

Conference season!

 Last week I had a blast at How the Light Gets in, a Philosophy festival in Hay, where I spoke on a panel about scientific expertise and whether we should defer to authorities. I argued that, because of the underdetermination of theory by evidence, the folk do have reason to be skeptical of scientific claims when they can see that the people generating those claims fail to represent them or their values.

This week I'm off to give a talk about the evolution of morality at a conference about science-engaged theology Then at Leeds we've got Frenchfest and in July it's the annual meeting of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science in Exeter.

I'll have to find some gaps to squeeze in some writing somewhere. But damn it's good to be travelling again!!

Friday, 20 May 2022

New ink

I read this beautiful article recently about how a tree's form tells the story of its individual past. Drought years baked in as narrow growth rings. Nuclear tests recorded as radiocarbon spikes. Or cramped growing conditions recorded in straight growth and a narrow canopy. History becomes embedded in tree flesh.

Human bodies pick up signs of life too, of course - the creases around the eyes that tell of tiredness and age, scars and stretch marks that bear witness to some of the changes and injuries we might undergo.  I've been taken by the idea that tattoos give humans a way to take partial control of this narrative, to choose some of the stories that become imprinted on them.

The image I chose was inspired by Ernst Haeckel's line drawings of siphonophores, especially his Porpita prunella.

The blue button resembles a jellyfish, but is actually a chondrophore - a cooperative colony of individual hydroids, each of which have specialised for different functions. For my symbolic purposes, the most important thing about them is their astonishing regenerative capacity. Like all cnidaria, they can survive just about any physical trauma, because if they lose a part, they can just grow it back. They can regrow from small pieces or even collections of separated cells.

I've had to bounce back from some difficult times too recently, and I take great comfort from the thought of these beautiful little creatures, floating delicately along warm ocean currents, ready to regenerate from whatever life throws at them, again and again if need be.

Saturday, 23 April 2022

Day 223: Time to get real

So another 65 days passed. And did I 'slay the beast' that I was 'hellbent' on slaying, AKA chapter 3? I did not. 

Reader, I'm ashamed.

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Tribal social instincts in Edinburgh

For anyone interested, I'm giving a talk to the Philosophy, Psychology and Informatics Group at the University of Edinburgh tomorrow. 

My title is 'The Evolution of Human Morality'


I will describe the ‘received view’ of how human morality evolved, and especially the influential ‘tribal social instincts hypothesis’. This idea, propounded in 2001 by cultural evolutionists Peter Richerson and Rob Boyd, posits that human morality evolved as an adaptive response to intense conflict between different human social groups. I review the evidence and articulate several criticisms of the hypothesis, as well as discussing possible rivals.  

It will take place Wed. 9 March, 17:10 – 18:30 and you can join remotely using the following zoom link:

Join Zoom Meeting


Meeting ID: 884 3866 5889

Passcode: BNVahZN5

Thursday, 17 February 2022

Day 158 Feeling the burn

It's wednesday. I'm having one of those grey, lack-lustre weeks where the sky is full of sleet, my cats have become incontinent, and I'm fighting-off the kind of first-world but endless problems that make you want to crawl under a duvet, with a pint of gin. And I got some disappointing news that means I'm stuck in the first circle-of-hell, domestically speaking, for at least another month.

*But* today I crossed the final 't' of the first half of the chapter I'm working on - the chapter that refuses to die. And I'm hell-bent with gritted teeth on slaying the rest of the beast by the end of next week.

Monday, 31 January 2022

Day 141 Update: pre-birth jitters

 It's been too long since my last progress report. The schedule went a bit off-piste thanks to Christmas, dry January, my standard cognitive chaos. But I haven't been idle, honest guvnor. I've pretty much vanquished chapter 8. 

Which leaves me only two chapters still undrafted. They're the two chapters that I thought would be the easiest, because they rely the most on existing material. Somehow that's made them the hardest instead. I'm not sure if this is because I find it more fun to write newer stuff, or perhaps because the remaining chapters deal with the issues that are most at the heart of all my work so the bar is higher, or what. But i can't avoid them any longer.

What I've started doing is reviewing the overall shape of the beast though. I've got around 73,000 words drafted which feels good. I promised the publisher between 80 and 100 thousand, so it feels like I'm right on track.  Of course, as well as the two remaining chapters, I've got the intro and conclusions still to do, as well as editing and redrafting, references, pictures and index to sort out. There is still plenty to do! 

But I'm close enough to the end now that a new sort of fear is beginning to set in. Not so much, 'Will i get it written?' as 'Will it be any good?' And there is something else too. Reviewing the macroscopic structure of the arguments, its dawned on me that it's turning out slightly, well, different from how I expected. Which is terrifying.

I've often joked that I don't feel entirely in charge when I'm writing. It's a bit like getting possessed by a idea and i don't always know where it will lead. I'm often surprised by the ending.

Is this normal? I have no idea. Many women have compared finishing a book to having a baby - long gestation period, painful birth, celebratory announcement period etc. But of course it doesn't stop there - the child keeps growing and developing (if you're lucky). and parenthood is all about cultivating something autonomous, rather than sculpting clay. 

It's like my work has a life of its own too. And I'm not the only author, because the end product reflects all sorts of things that happened, like things I read, other people's work, as well.

One of the surprises, so far, is that its a lot more philosophical than I thought it would be. This is partly because I set out to respond to philosophical work on my earlier writings but mostly, I'm sure, about people who have influenced me - like my former grad students, Will Morgan and Arthur Carlyle, who inspired me to think loads about really metaphysical issues like personal identity.

It's scary because it feels a bit out of my lane - I'm not a metaphysician! and because I feel much safer talking about real things, describing actual creatures, than in evaluating possible worlds and so on. I guess I'm also worried the abstract stuff gets too dry and will alienate people who'd rather be hearing about colourful and engaging animal life histories. 

Maybe I'll change the balance again in the end - I've been working more at the abstract end of things, but the two remaining chapters will hopefully bring it back to earth. I'll have to consult the muse, next time it's with me. I guess I'm also slightly freaked out because I've ended up writing much more new material than I originally intended to - not just new ways of putting things, but getting into entirely new problems and literatures that I'd never thought about before. Which has made it more fun for me, of course. But now that I'm remembering that my baby is going to have to go out into the world one day, it suddenly feels risky. 

It's not me to be an over-protective parent though. I'm more the type who bungs them into roller-skates and laughs when they fall over. Tells 'em to wipe their muddy hands on their knees and crack on. But then, I've always known, deep inexplicably in my core, that my kids are awesome and will do just fine. My book, on the other hand.......I need to work out what the equivalent is of helicopter authoring. I guess instead of disallowing boyfriends I'd be refusing to let anyone read it.

What I really need, to help with these jitters, is a) to work really hard editing and polishing it up but also b) to find some well-trusted, but also totally qualified people to read bits and beg them not to hold back on criticism, for my own good.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It's time to reach out to my academic village.......

Saturday, 18 December 2021

Day 97: 'Twas the week before christmas.........

and inside Ellen's house, 

was an orgy of late-night writing,

amidst mess, noodle pots, and empty bottles of famous grouse.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Day 72: Nanny McPh*$%

72 days......that's 2.4 months. How much is a respectable amount to have written in 2.4 months? How much was I planning to have written in 2.4 months?  You know the expression, 'When life gives you lemons, make lemonade'? Well the fact is that making any kind of juice is a lot like get through a whole pile of raw material, put in a load of work, and get a tiny dribble of juice plus a ton of waste for your efforts. It's not clear its even worth it, especially when juice in a carton is so cheap! 

Monday, 1 November 2021

Day 49: Half term etch-a-sketch

It's another one of those mondays where I sit before an enticing browser, trying to remember who I am, what I was meant to be doing, what it's all about........half term happened. And actually it was wonderful, busy, full of love and laughter with friends and family. There was mountain climbing, karaoke, a hedgehog, ghost biscuits, crazy golf, water sliding, trick-or-treating, and one slightly hair-raising adventure getting lost on a small Welsh island. I'm lucky to have a lot of great people in my life and my children are hilarious. It's all been highly effective at wiping my brain clean of all thoughts, worries, and ideas about my book. In fact, I feel borderline pre-linguistic at this point. I'm thinking in emojis. It's time to drag myself back on the horse. Goals time.

Half term marks my half-way point: 50% of my leave is gone. Only 11 short weeks left till I'm back to teaching, with christmas to fit in there somewhere too. Cue the emoji with the clenched teeth. I need to pick up the pace.

Chapter five is actually going pretty smoothly, and I think I can have it nailed this week if I go hard at it. That will make four chapters finished (one, two, five and seven) and four to go (three, four, six and eight). Three should be finished as well, I've been agonising over it needlessly, but I know that at crunch time I can see it off. So I can sort of say I've nailed five out of eight, if I want to haggle with myself pointlessly, which I do.

Of course, there is also a thesis to examine, and then a pile of external examining work, and my final project supervisions........but if I squint my eyes hard enough they go invisible and it will all be okay. I think I can do it. But I need to go dig out a heavy duty leash...................