On the Freedom of Misunderstanding of Speech

Close up of the Tube sign at Warren Street station showing just the letters W-A-R

Misreading on the tube leads to WAR

“The Ruffian” is great title for Ian Leslie’s Substack given his predilection for roughing up lazy thinking. I first came across him as the author of “Conflicted”, an excellent book about how to disagree constructively, a practice he frequently deploys in his Ruffian pieces. I sometimes disagree with Leslie, but not often enough to stop me paying the £4 monthly subscription to his Substack. He’s a sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued observer of contemporary life and there’s a substance to his writing that can’t easily be dismissed.

A couple of weeks back Leslie’s sharp eye was directed towards the critical reception of the recent Netflix specials from Ricky Gervais and Dave Chapelle, both of which have been branded as “anti-woke” by commentators who dismissed the performers as lazy and out of touch. In characteristic hang-on-a-minute mode, Leslie observes that both shows are among the most popular currently on the streaming service and mounts a pretty cogent defence that in his show Armageddon, Gervais (whose work he is most familiar with) is laughing not at minorities but at the po-faced strictures of the members of the ‘wokerati’ who have set themselves up as censors.

I think he has a point, even if the piece did raise a couple of uneasy thoughts that I wanted to chase down. I agree with him that comedy doesn’t have to have a moral purpose – it’s about the laughs. And like him, I want to live in a society where comedians are free to push at boundaries and to play with the hypocrisies and discomfort of their audiences. Indeed, I think that comedians have a licence to transgress. Those watching have made a choice to do so and there’s an understanding that what’s being watched is a performance, even if some performers work hard to disguise their artistry.

Even so is there any collateral damage? The comedian’s licence to transgress isn’t easily transferred to the workplace or other social environments. Gervais can’t reasonably be held responsible for the retelling of his material, but it is nevertheless absorbed into broader discourse.

As others have said elsewhere, Gervais’s show is a bit lazy in its content and construction. He’s done smarter work and I’ve seen edgier and better crafted shows challenging social mores from the likes of Stewart Lee, James Acaster, and Hannah Gadsby. Armageddon lacks their fire and sophistication, though admittedly Lee, Acaster and Gadsby were approaching transgressive boundaries from different angles in their work (I am probably revealing my tastes and biases here). Gervais leans too heavily on simplistic caricatures of some of his targets such as critical race theory or statue protests (though he had a good joke about cultural appropriation). These things are fair game for comedic attack but do jokes that operate at a Daily Mail level of critique of the underlying ideas erode the foundations of efforts to create a fairer and more tolerant society (efforts with which Gervais admits at the end of the show he supports)?

On balance, I suspect not. I felt I could take what I liked from Ricky Gervais’s show and discard the rest and my guess is that many other audience members are probably doing the same. Is it a problem that not all are – that some are clapping and nodding along without seeing the artifice in Gervais’s act? I find it hard to believe that the political divisions over the merits and demerits of ‘wokeness’ depend much on any one comedian, however popular.

I’m very likely over-thinking this, but I still think there’s a broader point here about the impact of misunderstanding in public discourse. Misunderstanding is the raw material of comedy, which is part of the justification for its license to transgress. Jokes often play on people’s misperception of the set up: “By my age, my parents had a house and a family, and to be fair to me, so do I, but it is the same house and it is the same family” – you can see why Hannah Fairweather’s was judged one of the funniest jokes at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. However, in discussions that aim to critique one viewpoint or another, misunderstanding is more problematic, whether it’s intentional or not.

The intentional part is obvious in the rhetoric of political posturing. But there’s another aspect of the problem that seems to be more common in the age of quickfire social media and was highlighted in Helen Lewis’s Substack on the reaction to the Gervais and Chapelle shows on Netflix: the politicisation of arts criticism. Lewis writes “Many people are making political judgements, rather than artistic ones, and using these cultural avatars to signal their political beliefs,” and suggests this is happening both because “it’s easier to write about the ideological content of an artwork […] than it is to appraise its technical details” and because controversies over ideology, particularly ones stoked by half-truths and superficial analyses, attract readers and clicks. The problem extends to those of us who engage in social or political debates on Twitter/X, Instagram, and in blogs or Substacks, where the primary purpose is to attack or defend a given position, because we are on show in a technologically enlarged public square. It’s human nature to fall back on snap judgements and assume that any given statement defines a person or the full contours of their political viewpoint. We’re all prone to this sort of kneejerk or system 1 thinking, which is most likely to be unleashed in the heat of partisan politics or – to return to my starting point – the woke and anti-woke enmities that inflame the current culture wars.

The temptation to react without thinking more deeply might be augmented by the rapid-fire format of much of social media but is not confined to it. Even in longer form writing it can be difficult to convey the totality – dare I say complexity? – of what we want to say. Even as I write this post, already festooned with mid-branching qualifications, I aware of the compromises between the clarity and conciseness. Ideas spill and meander in branching lines of thought and can be hard to shape into concrete forms. This is why Pinker argues it’s so much easier to explain yourself in conversation than in writing, where you cannot react to your audience and have instead to anticipate their needs.

I write all this as someone who has given in to the laziness of system 1 thinking on occasion (mostly on Twitter) and who has in turn, as a result of working in matters of EDI and research culture in a university setting over the past several years, found myself misunderstood. I have been variously accused in the press and on social media of being a stifler of academic freedom, a remover of statues and, on one particularly memorable occasion, “a witchfinder general”. As far as I am concerned, each of these accusations was based on misunderstanding or misreporting, but maybe part of the fault was mine for not expressing myself clearly enough. While each accusation was an irritant, I mostly opted not to respond. This was because although I was being criticised personally, as a member of the senior leadership team of the university, I risked any reaction being seen – misunderstood? – as an institutional pronouncement. I no longer hold that position, so it is now easier for me to write about these incidents, but I don’t feel completely free of the constraint of institutional association.

Still, the lack of response still feels like a failure. I am well aware that contested matters of EDI present no easy solutions, which is why I made openness to challenge and dialogue the seventh of seven pillars in our university EDI strategy and have striven to live up to that commitment in responding to concerns raised by colleagues and students. But it’s hard to know how much faith people have in that commitment (both internally and externally) and it certainly remains the case that universities struggle to engage meaningfully in public-facing discussions about what they are doing.

The facile answer to this challenge is that everyone should read and absorb the lessons of Ian Leslie’s book about how to have a productive argument. That’s easier said than done, alas, even at universities which, of all our public institutions, are supposed to be the places where ideas can be tested rigorously – to destruction if need be. The places where thinking should be the least lazy.

However, it doesn’t always work like that. As we have seen last week with the Employment Tribunal judgement that Professor Jo Phoenix was subjected to victimisation and harassment at the Open University for her gender critical beliefs. The lesson to draw here is not that such behaviours are to be found at all UK universities. In my experience of leading on EDI at my own institution and through talking to my opposite numbers across universities in the UK and Europe, there is serious engagement with the myriad intersecting issues (including academic freedom and freedom of speech) that affect efforts to create environments that more equal, more diverse and more inclusive. Although some might accuse universities of mindlessly quaffing the Kool-Aid of wokeism and identity politics, what I have mostly seen is recognition that we are grappling with complex and shifting debates and that dialogue to find a way forward has to embrace the full range of views that are advanced in good faith.

Perhaps these internal discussions are too internal. It remains true that creating a space within universities for critique of difficult issues – the appropriate balance between trans rights and women’s rights, the Israel-Gaza conflict, the frictions between sexuality and some religious beliefs – remains, well, difficult. There is nervousness about internal and external reactions that crowd out efforts to have a more informed and nuanced discussion between different perspectives. But if universities aren’t prepared to shoulder that risk, who will? They are not helped by the fact that these issues are now grouped under the simplistic and misleading term, ‘culture war’. Different perspectives on our aspirations as a society or a culture aren’t going away, so why condemn ourselves to endless bitter conflict? As a first step, wouldn’t it be better to stop warring and have a conversation? Who’s brave enough to go first?


Posted in Equality Diversity & Inclusion, Science & Art, Science culture, Scientific Life | 4 Comments

Books of 2023

A combination of life’s distractions, ill discipline and slow reading mean that I have only managed to finish 11 books this year. I am almost embarrassed to admit to such a paltry tally. There are people who can rip through that many titles in less than a month. I envy them their capacity. But it is what it is. Eleven.

As is now my habit, there is a tweet thread of brief reviews of each book – summarised in the image below. Click on the image for a higher resolution version.

Multi-panel image of the tweet thread of reviews of the 11 books I read in 2023.

Tweeted reviews of the books read in 2023.

My favourites would have to be the first two books that I read this year: Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels and Kenan Malik’s Not so Black and White.

I had previously enjoyed Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt (The Invention of Nature) and he reappears here, albeit as a minor character, in her stupendous and rollicking tale of the writers, philosophers and thinkers who coalesced around the polymath Goethe in the small university town of Jena in the last decade of the 18th Century. Their lives, deaths, loves, rivalries and collective creativity make for a riveting story.

Not so Black and White is a more sober tome but no less vital. It provides a deeply informed analysis of the history of racism and the ways that identity politics, while seeking to enact the higher aspirations of the Enlightenment, have led to a fracturing of social solidarity. Malik is another author I’ve read before – his The Quest for a Moral Compass is a magisterial exploration of the development of moral philosophy – and I was once again hugely impressed by the depth and clarity of his writing.

Most of the other non-fiction titles I got through this year were also important and compelling reads, especially Sarah Churchwell’s The Wrath to Come, an exploration of the persistent legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the USA; Angela Saini’s deconstruction of the presumption of male power in The Patriarchs; Matthew Cobb’s The Genetic Age, a thoroughly researched account of the societal implications of gene and genome engineering; Gaia Vince’s terrific and terrifying analysis in Nomad Century of the likely impact of climate change on human migration; and Peter Frankopan’s massive and massively impressive The Earth Transformed – world history as you have never read it before.

I reserve special mention for Why don’t things fall up?, my friend Alom Shaha’s brilliantly lucid account for non-specialists of how science helps us to understand the world.

Sadly, the two novels that I read this year – Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See – were both disappointments, neither conjuring for me the feeling of the worlds they sought to convey. Better luck next year on that front, I hope.

Posted in Book Review | Comments Off on Books of 2023

Photos of 2023

I took over 2800 photos in 2023. Actually, I took a lot more because we went on safari in the summer and I have worked hard to cull as many shots that I could from that trip. Even so, that left me with nearly 1000 pictures of wildlife that I want to keep.

Facade of a building in Bologna onto which is projected paintings of the dissected human body

Building and body beautiful (Bologna)

My selected favourites bear witness to the fact that this has very much been a year of travel – mostly to cities and mostly for work. I started and finished the year with trips to Germany. Sharped-eyed viewers will see that over the course of the last 12 months I have visited Berlin, Ballymena, Vienna, Cambridge, Brussels, Barcelona, Geneva, Auschwitz, Valencia, Kenya, Leiden, Killyleagh, Bologna, Tokyo, and Hannover – not forgetting, of course, my home town of London.

Orange and grey concert hall, reflected in damp concrete.

Concert Hall (Berlin)

There are cityscapes and pictures of whole buildings but I do like to try to pick out details, fragments that will give some sense of what it was like to wander the city streets. I retain also a fascination with the shapes and colours that our manufactured environment presents to the eye.

Angular block of flats abuts two chimneys from the restored Battersea Power Station (London)

Battersea Power Station (London)

Metal statue of man in a frock coat and top hat beside a bell - seen on the roof of a building in Brussels

Bell ringer (Brussels)

Woman walking alone down a narrow lane in Barcelona. It is evening time - the street lamps are lit.

Barcelona walker

A crown of hippos in a natural pool; glistening with water, many of them appear to eye the camera

A crowd of hippos (Masai Mara, Kenya)

Nighttime cityscape in Tokyo under grey skies – lights are on in many tower blocks.

Los Angeles 2019? No, Tokyo at night.

Yellow and red illuminated girders of the Tokyo tower make for an angular and abstract composition

Tokyo tower in red, yellow and blue

In the foreground stone steps lead down to a path that meanders into the distance over the hills and mountains of Co. Down

County Down (N. Ireland)

All 90 of this year’s selection can be found on Flickr.

Posted in Science | 2 Comments

An open letter on EDI matters to the Secretary of State for the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT)

The letter below started out as a ‘closed’ communication sent to DSIT on 11th October but in the absence of any response, despite two reminders, and the revelation in the meantime that the Secretary of State herself sometimes has  occasion to write open letters, I have decided to publish it.

Although my letter precedes the furore ignited by Michelle Donelan’s missive to UKRI raising her concerns about tweets by members of Research England’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Advisory Group, it touches on a related issue: the use and interpretation of evidence in political discourse on matters that are central to research and higher education.

Donelan’s UKRI letter put a very particular spin on a small number of words in a few tweets and proceeded to call for the disbandment of an EDI committee that has yet to meet. It seems to me that greater diligence was needed to ascertain whether or not the individuals involved are actually biased in a way that would compromise their role as advisors on EDI before any challenge was made regarding their participation in the committee. It would also have been more rigorous of the Secretary of State to have provided a rationale for her call to disband the committee completely.

The issues involved here (attitudes to the Israeli-Hamas conflict) and in my letter (a request for clarification of claims made by Michelle Donelan with regard to questions of sex and gender) are complex and important. They deserve serious attention. That means that any and all discussions should pay particular attention to the totality of evidence, rather than being selective with the facts.

Of course, the difference between scholarly and political discourse is very often located in the way that facts are used. The best scholarship will embrace all relevant information, including that which might contradict an argument that is being advanced. By contrast, it is in the nature of the rough and tumble of politics for people to play a faster, looser game.

In reality, the differences are not always so marked. We all – scholars and politicians alike – cling to our predilections and worldviews. Our minds are not changed so easily. But none of us has a monopoly on the whole truth, which is why it is so important to try to be open-minded and curious about what people we disagree with are really thinking.

I still hope therefore to get an answer to my letter and a clearer insight into the mind of the Secretary of State. On the face of it, she and I see the facts differently and have different views on the importance of work to promote equality, diversity and inclusion within our universities and research institutions. But I am curious to know if there is scope to explore what commonalities there might be between our perspectives.

11 October 2023

Dear Secretary of State

I write in a personal capacity as a scientist who has spent their entire professional life working in academia and been closely involved in addressing a range of issues related to research culture. These include the impact of incentive structures, and efforts to create a more diverse, inclusive, and productive academy. As I’m sure you are aware, these are knotty subjects.

I was pleased to read of your commitment to facts and evidence in your speech to the Conservative Party Conference last week, but troubled by some of the vaguer claims made about the ‘slow creep of wokeism’. I realise party conferences are occasions for rallying the troops, but you touched on complex issues that require serious deliberation, not least because of the impact they can have on the people most affected by them.

Therefore, there are two points in your speech on which I would be grateful for a clarification of the facts.

First, you said that Scotland’s Chief Statistician had issued guidance to the effect that “data on sex can only be collected in exceptional circumstances”. I have had a look at the guidance document but did not get a sense that that was his intention. Please could you or someone in your team point me to the sections where your claim is substantiated?

Second, you said that scientists are being told “by university bureaucrats that they cannot ask legitimate research questions about biological sex”. Could you please list the instances where this has happened that you had in mind? If there are very many, perhaps just mention four or five that you consider the most disturbing. I’m bound to say I have not come across such direct interference in my own work in science or in the EDI space. I am fully aware that questions of sex and gender are discussed, often in an uninformed and ill-tempered manner in the media and social media, but in my experience universities grapple very carefully with these questions.

There is of course a rapidly evolving discourse around sex and gender, and one that is important for our society. That is why it is crucial for us to create space for constructive dialogue. Perhaps this is your aim with the investigation to be led by Prof Alice Sullivan? I hope that will provide an opportunity for an informed discussion that is broad enough to embrace not just academic and policy research, but the women and LGBT+ communities closest to these matters.

Yours faithfully,

Professor Stephen Curry


Posted in Equality Diversity & Inclusion, Science & Politics | Comments Off on An open letter on EDI matters to the Secretary of State for the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT)

Kenya: Where the Wild Things Are

Everyone we knew who had been on safari told us they’d had such an amazing experience that I was worried our expectations for our trip to Kenya were being set too high.

Elephants near and far walking in the Kenyan sunshine from right to left over beaten grassland

Elephants trekking across Amboseli National Park

I needn’t have been concerned. For six days we bounced and rattled in a Toyota Landcruiser driven by our knowledgeable and sharp-eyed guide, Senei, and each game drive seemed to be better than the last.

Black rhino in the Serengeti grassland with an Oxpecker hovering above

Black rhino in the grassland at the Masai Mara

I took hundreds of photographs. I had a harness that would allow me to carry two cameras, one on each side, so that I could quickly switch between their different lenses. I looked and felt a bit weird in this get-up but in the end was pleased with the flexibility it gave me.

Flamingoes at the edge of the water and in flight.

Flamingoes at Lake Nakuru

I won’t post all my picture here, though I am sorely tempted. The wonder of it all. We saw lions, elephants, giraffes, hippos, hyenas, vultures, wildebeast, water buffalo, antelope, a leopard, a serval, flamingoes, pelicans and a huge variety of other birds.

Close-up of the head of a hippopotamus in the water, resting on a friend and apparently smiling in his dreams

Happy hippo in Lake Naivasha

If I have any regrets it’s that we didn’t have more time to stand and stare. The experience of seeing so many wild animals in their native habitats made me realise how rare it is to see large, undomesticated animals in the UK. If you do, it is in ones or twos, usually darting across the road. I guess you can still see herds of wild deer in Scotland, but I never have.

Male lion with severe facial scarring looking directly at the camera.

A lion who’s been in the wars (Amboseli National Park)

The pictures here are just a taster. If you would like to see more, I have selected my top 78 and created an album on Flickr. If you are interested in seeing more than that, I have assembled a larger set that is essentially a photo-journal of our trip.

A black and orange bee hovering over the centre of a bright purple and yellow flower.

Busy bee


Posted in Photography | Comments Off on Kenya: Where the Wild Things Are

Why Succession failed me – just

Tom and Roman gaze out through the glass wall of a corporate office

Tom and Roman – trapped by farce?

I have been trying to put my finger on why I have found Succession — HBO’s must-see series about fictional US media mogul Logan Roy and his dysfunctional family — to be at once utterly compelling and annoyingly dissatisfying.

The show has an excellent pedigree. It was created by Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It, Fresh Meat), and has a stellar cast featuring career-highlight performances by Brian Cox as the ferocious patriarch and Matthew Macfadyen, playing brilliantly against type as the hollow but calculating hanger-on Tom Wambsgans; these two shine just a little bit more brightly than the portrayals of the fractious Roy children by Alan Ruck (Con),  Jeremy Strong (Kendall), Sarah Snook (Shiv), and Kieran Culkin (Roman).

Succession is commonly mentioned in the same breath as other stand-out television series from the last two decades, such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire, but I wouldn’t put it in the same category at those dramas. Technically, nor would the creators, since Succession is a comedy-drama, and one that that some perceptive critics have even compared to superior situation comedies, because of the recursive plotting, which loops from season to season around the children’s struggles to grab the reins of Waystar-Royco from their ailing father.

I think there’s something to that designation. But even though the series has some scenes that are blisteringly dramatic – not least from season 4, Logan’s sorrowful dismissal of his kids in the karaoke bar (“I love you, but you are not serious people.”), their hate-love inflected attempts to say a last farewell to him over the phone, and Shiv and Tom tearing truth and chunks out of each other on the balcony at the pre-election party – its comedic instincts pull the show more towards farce than a work that has something new to say about modern life.

This, ultimately, is the source of my dissatisfaction with Succession. Because so much of the plotting and characterisation is rooted in farce, they end up being flattened in a cartoonish way that you don’t find in more serious drama. There are moments of self-awareness for many of the characters but little in the way of any kind of growth. That would be OK – who says that people have to grow or learn lessons in fiction? – but the main dramatic weakness is that you almost never get to see any of the characters doing their jobs. They mostly sit around bickering, albeit in superbly caustic terms, but that wasn’t enough for me. Logan’s charge of unseriousness therefore applies not just to the characters of his children but to the narrative, which lacks the procedural depth found in shows like The Sopranos or, my recent favourite, Better Call Saul. There’s no real sense that Kendall, Shiv, or Roman have the wherewithal to run the company. To my mind, nowhere near enough groundwork had been laid to make Tom’s transformation into the all-powerful CEO believable.

Realising that Succession is more farcical, than dramatic makes this omission more forgivable but I still can’t really understand it, given the enormous amounts of talent involved in creating the show. But what do I know – a mere armchair critic? Maybe an injection of reality would have nixed the comedy? I’ve got my suspicions.

Whatever. Succession remains an outstanding achievement – horrifically compulsive viewing. And who would have guessed that Roman would ultimately emerge as the most relatable human of the bickering Roys?

For better and more in-depth critiques, see these pieces by Hannah Mackay (BFI) and Isabel Berwick (FT).

Posted in TV review | Comments Off on Why Succession failed me – just

A day in Auschwitz

Entrance to Auschwitz I with the 'Arbeit Mach Frei' iron gate

Entrance to Auschwitz I

Last week I visited Auschwitz. I find myself hesitating to write or say anything because I can’t find the words to convey the horror of the place and, in any case, so much has already been written and said far more powerfully by the Jewish survivors of the evil that was the Holocaust.

The trip was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust as part of their Lessons from Auschwitz project, which aims to raise awareness of antisemitism among school and university students and teachers. It was preceded by a workshop that included an eyewitness account of the savagery of the Nazi death camps by Holocaust survivor Renee Salt. I was already familiar with the accounts written by Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl, but these could not compare to hearing the testimony first hand.

Renee’s horrific story made the trip to Auschwitz all the more human because the camps themselves lie empty, bearing only silent witness to the unspeakable events that took place there.

Crutches and artificial limbs taken from disabled people who were sent to the gas chamber on arrival

Crutches and artificial limbs taken from disabled people who were sent to the gas chamber on arrival

I learned that Auschwitz is composed of three separate camps, two of which we visited. Much of Auschwitz I, a converted army barracks which has the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate, is now a museum containing many artefacts and records of the people who perished there: shoes, luggage, pots and pans, crutches, hair (taken for the German textile industry), and photographs. It also, chillingly, retains an intact gas chamber and crematorium.

A 'Halt!' sign with skull and crossbones stand in front of barbed wire fences and a high concrete wall.

No way out

Empty canisters of Zyklon B

Empty canisters of Zyklon B

Gas chamber

Gas chamber

Crematorium oven - with trolleys for loading corpses

Crematorium oven – with trolleys for loading corpses

Sign saying "Danger! High voltage will cause death" in front of fences and barrack buildings

“Danger! High voltage will cause death.”

Barbed wire - close-up

Barbed wire


Auschitz II, or Auschwitz-Birkenau, was purpose built for murder and the sheer scale of the place is hard to comprehend. Row upon row of huts almost as far as the eye can see and, at the rear, the remains of the four gas chambers and crematoria, which were ineptly dynamited at the end of the war as the Nazis sought in vain to destroy the evidence of their crimes. The photographs I took struggle to convey the size of the camp, or the grimness of the visit.

Entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Guard towers at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Guard towers at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Prisoner huts at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Prisoner huts at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Bunk beds inside a hut at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Bunk beds inside a hut at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Remains of huts at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Remains of huts at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Modified cattle truck

Modified cattle truck

Remains of the crematorium

Remains of the crematorium

Finally, because the photographs bear only insipid witness, perhaps the wordless video below will give a better sense of what it was like to be there. It was impossible to absorb the full extent of the horror but will be impossible to forget.



Posted in History of Science | 1 Comment

The separation of life and death

Dad on the beach - Sept 2014

Who is that stranger in my father’s bed?
Those sunken eyes
The concave cheeks
Salted with stubble
The thinned grey hair
Plastered to a narrow skull.
I have lost the man I loved.

In truth it had been a long journey
To this resting place.
A slow stepping backwards
As memory stuttered and stalled
And confusion dampened
The flares of anger
That made strangers of us both.

You used to fill a room with smiles
(Or suck the air out of it).
How did we become so
Before the question is fully formed
The answer blurts out:
This is not death
It is life.


(My father died in February and I am still coming to terms with the loss. I don’t know what to make of it. Ours was at times an uneasy relationship; we were close and not close. I don’t want to dishonour his memory, but neither do I want to gloss over. I suspect I am not yet ready to look at it – or my own feelings – too closely.)

Posted in Philosophy | 3 Comments

What’s the easiest way to become a less lazy photographer?

I’m thinking of becoming a less lazy photographer. Can you help?

Reflections of Brussel's Grand Place in the window of a baroque building

Brussels window.

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I enjoy a bit of photography from time to time, since I have an annual tradition of posting my favourite photographs at the end of each year. Photography is something I’ve enjoyed since childhood. I was probably only seven or eight when I got my first camera. As a teenager I set up camp on weekends in my dentist father’s darkroom to make my own black-and-white prints. I was happy to make the switch to digital, and happier still as the iPhone camera developed into a credible substitute for a compact digital camera, though I enjoy the versatility that comes with a camera that has interchangeable lens. Long a fan of Canon digital SLRs, I made the switch a few years ago to the smaller, lighter and mirrorless Olympus OMD E-M5 MkIII. Recently, I’ve rather greedily treated myself to a high-quality compact camera, the Ricoh GR IIIx, convincing myself it would be a great travel supplement to my iPhone and that I wanted to develop my street photography.

But even with all that gear, I’m a lazy photographer. All my photos are taken as jpegs and imported straight into Apple Photos, which comes free on every Mac. There they can be lightly edited, sorted and archived. I pay for iCloud storage so that I have access to all my photos on my computer, iPad and iPhone.

I like to think that I have a good eye for colour and composition, and a reasonable understanding of how to play with or control light and shade; so I confine myself to fairly minimal editing in Photos – straightening a wonky horizon, cropping, tweaking the highlights, shadows and saturation, and maybe adding a bit of sharpening. And then I’m done.

Lately, I’ve been wondering about doing more. I know that if I were to shoot in RAW, I would have a lot more control over the edit. I would have even more control if I invested in a better editing programme, such as Adobe’s Lightroom. But so far I’ve been put off by the hassle and perhaps kidding myself that my composition doesn’t need the extra help.

A blogpost by David Bradley, who is a very fine photographer, particularly of wildlife, revealed to me just how much improvement can be gained from using good digital tools. The post explains his workflow for getting a sharp shot of a bird in flight, which involves shooting in RAW, and processing the image in DxO’s PureRaw2 programme to remove noise, before importing into Lightroom for further sharpening and adjustments to the exposure. He also recommends using Topaz’s Sharpen AI tool in some cases, which can deal with motion and other forms of blurring. The result is impressive.

I think I’m nearly ready to jump, not least because Mrs C and I will be going on safari in Kenya in the summer and, while I’m not expecting to return with pictures that would be worthy of National Geographic, I would like to feel that I had done my best with the opportunity. First, though, I would like to hear more about other people’s workflows. There are so many tools out there that it can be a bit bewildering and, as I think I’ve mentioned already, I’m a lazy photographer.

Posted in Photography | 2 Comments

Books of 2022

Another year, another tweet thread of the books I read these past twelvemonth. Click on the images to access higher resolution versions which are just about legible, or better still, read the thread on Twitter.


In 2022 I managed just 20 titles, five of them novels and seven by women. Of the novels I read – all by women, it turns out – the most captivating were Foster and Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, though Persuasion and Hamnet were both immensely enjoyable.

My favourite non-fiction book of the year has to be Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin, which provides not just an entertaining account of his life but a hugely insightful introduction into his liberal philosophy. I continued my explorations of liberalism with A Thousand Small Sanities, Adam Gopnik’s lively account – written for his daughter – of why liberalism is hated by the left and the right. (If you have an appetite for yet more on liberalism, I would still heartily recommend Ian Dunt’s How to be a Liberal, which I read last year).


A very close second to my favourite non-fiction title has to be Fintan O’Toole’s personal and sharply observed history of Ireland since the 1950s: We Don’t Know Ourselves. O’Toole is a just few years older than me, and while I grew up north of the border, I have enough connections through aunts, uncles and cousins in the South for there to be many resonances with my own history in Ireland. But many revelations too – I never realised Charlie Haughey was such a crook!


Several of my non-fiction choices I read for instruction and of these by far the most helpful were Ian Leslie’s Conflicted, a thoroughly researched examination of how to resolve arguments, and John Amaechi’s book on leadership (The Promises of Giants), a work so packed with useful insights I was left wishing it could be taken in pill form.


Posted in Book Review, Science | 2 Comments

Photos of 2022

Another year, another two thousand or more photographs, some of which I thought were quite good. There’s a little taster below but if you want to see the full set of 55 pictures that were my favourites from this year, you need to click through to my album on Flickr.

Robin on a branch in silhouette.

Silhouetted Robin.

The Louvre in Paris reflected in the now iconic glass pyramid.

Louvre Reflections.

Black satellite dishes protruding from a multicoloured row of terraced houses.

Colourful Communication

A small balcony in Barcelona with room for just a single red armchair.

Barcelona Balcony

Circle of leaves glowing in the sunlight

The Circle of Light.

Round aluminium tables and blue chairs on a wet pavement strewn with fallen leaves.

No Cafe Society in Autumn.


Posted in Photography, Science & Art, Travel | 4 Comments

Intelligent life: Isaiah Berlin

Thanks to the paucity of my education and cultural life I have come late to Isaiah Berlin, the noted philosopher and historian of ideas whose thinking provided such a guiding light to the 20th Century. But I’m definitely a fan now.

Isaiah Berlin - Archive on Four

I’d heard the name, of course, but would have been hard-pressed to tell you why he was well-known. I started tracking him down after reading a piece in the New Yorker about philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, whose ideas challenged Berlin’s assertion of the inevitable clash between freedom and equality. I liked Anderson’s notions of “relational, or democratic, equality: meeting as equals, regardless of where you were coming from or going to” and assumed that Berlin had somehow got it wrong.

But I should have looked before I leaped to that conclusion. When I did finally get around to probing Berlin’s thinking, through reading Michael Ignatieff’s fine biography, I found much more depth and nuance and humanity than I had supposed from that single observation in the New Yorker article.

I marked many passages as I read Ignatieff’s book but one of the few that I selected as especially resonant, highlighted in pink rather than yellow, could stand as my personal credo.

Screenshot of the Berlin biography extract. The text reads "In these wars, he belonged on the liberal left, but he warned his own side that their goals were in conflict. For every supposed gain in social justice there might be a corresponding loss of freedom. This conflict between ends was bound to defy smooth managerial solutions. The best that could be hoped for was some ‘logically untidy, flexible and even ambiguous compromise’. What the age calls for, Isaiah concluded, ‘is not (as we are often told) more faith, or stronger leadership, or more scientific organisation. Rather it is the opposite – less Messianic ardour, more enlightened scepticism, more toleration of idiosyncrasies.’ Fighting injustice was essential, but men ‘do not live only by fighting evils’. They live by choosing their own goals – a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible’. It was individual freedom, to choose well or ill, which had to be defended, not some ultimate vision of the human good. Since no disposition was faultless, no disposition was final. His motto in politics, he concluded, was: surtout pas trop de zèle."

Highlighted extract from Berlin’s biography. Full quote in the Alt text.

It rang such a sonorous bell I think because I have such a logically untidy mind and aspire, however falteringly, to an empathetic approach in debate and decision-making. “Empathy was, for Berlin,” Ignatieff writes, “the core liberal aptitude – the capacity to be open, receptive, unafraid in the face of opinions, temperaments, passions alien to one’s own.” Well, quite.

It’s an outlook I’ve tried to bring to discussions of open access and research assessment, but also, perhaps more critically, to work to address some of the challenges around equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at my university and within higher education. EDI is steeped in conflicting values and perspectives; arguments in good faith struggle to be seen as such, since who you are – your history, your lived experience – weighs heavily within what you have to say.

The idea that the best that can be hoped for is some “logically untidy, flexible and ambiguous compromise” rings true for my experience of conversations about the gravity and impact of historical racism, for example, or the rights of cis and trans women, or where lines are to be drawn around free speech.

Berlin’s thinking is founded on a deep belief in pluralism and that values are  rooted in history and culture. For him variety really was the spice of life, and of liberalism in particular. But this also means that conflict is inevitable. The challenge is to find a way to deal with a conflict for which there is not likely to be a solution to satisfy everyone. The best we can hope for is for all sides in any debate to engage honestly, to recognise with Berlin that perspective matters (without somehow following the more simplistic ruts of identity politics), and to be able to live with ‘solutions’ that we may not like. For those of us in the majority in our diversifying society, that may sometimes call for the generosity to cede power.

For more on Berlin, I can recommend the recent Archive on 4 radio documentary which explores his life as one of the last great public intellectuals and makes good use of recordings of his uniquely plummy gabble. I particularly liked his description of the qualifications for membership of the intelligentsia: “…belief in reason, belief in progress, hatred of all forms of irrational conduct, together with a profound moral concern for society.” 


Posted in Philosophy, Science, Science culture | Comments Off on Intelligent life: Isaiah Berlin