Saturday, 5 December 2009

Day 5. Book 5.

Autism: explaining the enigma
Uta Frith 1989
Chapter 1; What is autism?

I, like most people, probably have a big gap in my knowledge when it comes to the phenomenon of autism which is why I have resolved to close it. I knew that there was an 'autistic spectrum' and some of the vague characteristics, for example not being able of interact or socialise in a 'normal' way and avoiding eye contact.

One of the main mistakes I have made in my assumptions is that 'Asperger's syndrome' is one of the most severe forms of autism that there is. It seems that completely the opposite is true and Asperger's is the mildest form and is what is commonly known as 'high functioning' autism. This is generally not diagnosed until after childhood as it doesn't feature some of the early signs which other forms of autism feature such as a late onset of language acquisition.

This is something else I did know about autism, which is that as well as having implications on an autistic person's ability to communicate on a social level it also has implications on their ability to actually form original utterances. I'm not sure how deeply this runs as the chapter is quite vague about it, presumably and hopefully the author expounds on this later in the book but instances or children only speaking in unanalysed blocks of language could have enormous implications for Chomsky's theory of a Language Acquisition Devise. I shall have to look into this.
Sorry, I promised I wouldn't let this project become about language and look, it has, back to what I've learnt;

The first 2 men to discover autism were Asperger and Kanner in what seems to be a sort of Darwin/Wallace type scenario. They both released papers, one year apart during world war two which were originally dismissed by their contemporaries. It seems crazy that such a condition that presently is the subject of so many social campaigns was recognised only 60 years ago. I am always surprised at how recent anything like this has been discovered. It fills me with confidence that we've only just started to scratch the surface of the brain and that there's far more to discover about the conditions we presently know about as well as as yet undiscovered onces.
Asperger's paper spanned a much broader set of children than the Kanner paper, touching on much wider edges of the more mildly affected which is why mild autism is called 'Asperger's syndrome'. Kanner only studied much more severely affected children. It seems odd, Frith points out, that Kanner's syndrome is not a much more widely used term to describe more severe forms of the condition. I think we should start calling it after Kanner because it seems a shame that he isn't getting as much recognition for his ideas as Asperger.

A main point which Frith seems to want to push extensively throughout this chapter is that autism is not just a condition that affects children and children do not grow out of autism. I'm not sure why there might be a myth that this is the case, especially since Rainman came out, but it certainly rang bells. I think this may be down to children with autism having a much greater impact on the world we live in because we have to integrate them into our society before they or the people who look after them have not worked out effective ways to deal with their problems. It seems that adults with autism tend to keep to themselves or have worked out a system or routine which helps them fit into the world in which we live and so we hear less of them. Also, more research seems to have been done on children with or potentially with autism in order to work out ways to notice it early. Whilst it seems this research is mostly unsuccessful it is definitely a place of priority as if we can diagnose autism early we can tailor a child's social environment and education accordingly.

I am, by no means, now an expert about autism but I definitely know more than I did and I definitely feel less ignorant for it. I feel the need that I have to fill the gaps I now have in terms of depth of research and what research has taken place, especially with regards to language. I will definitely look into this and report back when I have.


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Friday, 4 December 2009

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Day three. Book three.

A brief history of Infinity – The Quest to Think the Unthinkable
Brian Clegg 2003
Chapter 2. Counting your fingers.

You know when children first learn their numbers? And then they don't stop counting? No, I don't either, I don't have any children but if I ever do I think I won't tell them to shut up in the hope that they may accidentally discover infinity and I can make millions.

This chapter seems to be purely about Zeno and his crazy paradoxes, mostly about fractions. This is presumably because the book is set out in chronological order and you have to start at the beginning, and everyone knows the beginning of everything was ancient Greece. Well, it wasn't but apparently the beginning of the concept of infinity started there. The only problem I have now is wanting to know the rest of its history. This book does not feature stand alone chapters. I need to know the rest of it now because it's like a story.

Once upon a time a tortoise and Achilles had a race. (this isn't going where you think it is). The tortoise gets a head start. However, when Achilles finally sets off after running a short while he reaches the place where the tortoise was when he set off, by which the point the tortoise has moved a little further. So he runs to that point but when he gets there the tortoise have moved a little further. And so on.

Movement is impossible according to this paradox by Zeno, but I know it's not because I've been to the kitchen and back to get coffee this morning without any problems. This seems to be because as I walk my steps don't get smaller and smaller, Zeno was a fucking idiot.
Sorry, I take that back, he wasn't, he was very clever and we all have to feel sorry for him because Plato and Aristotle were very mean to him.

Another of his paradoxes that Brian writes about revolves around 2 arrows stopped in time. One was a moving arrow and one was a completely still arrow, but, since they were stopped in time how could we tell the difference? The simple answer for about 2000 years was that 'we can't' but then Einstein showed up and showed that, yes, of course you can. I don't exactly understand the complete ins and outs of the physics of it, I may have to give it another couple of reads to get my head round it but this seems like an infinitely comforting thought that a philosophical problem, which has been bothering scientists and philosophers for thousands of years could have a concrete and scientific solution. It just serves to displace this crazy idea that so many religious heavy-weights have that there are some problems that we'll never know the answer to so we might as well attribute them to God and get on with it. It's stories like this that make you just want to shout in their faces 'SEE! SCIENCE IS WORTHWHILE!' Not that they'd listen mind. Brian didn't make that point, probably because it was just a passing comment on some of Zeno's other ideas and didn't have that much to do with infinity and what he is trying to do is write a comprehensive history of infinity, not an essay on the advantages of a secular society.

Apparently the Greeks did not have the same concept of a fractions as we do and their numbers were handled in a very different way. This chapter does not expound on this so it seems I'm going to have to read the rest of the book now. It seems really weird to me though that their philosophers still managed to come up with these mathematical problems that are still relevant today. And that despite how far you think society, technology and science has come physicists are still pulling their hair out when the little infinity symbol pops up when they're trying to apply quantum theory to black holes. I'm just happy in the knowledge that people are still trying despite the stories of at least two great mathematicians going insane because of it.

I also now exactly how big a googol is (a 1 with 100 zeros after it.) Thanks Brian!

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Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Day Two. Book Two.

As used on the famous Nelson Mandela – Underground adventures in the arms and torture trade.
Mark Thomas 2006
Chapter 1 – An answer waiting to happen.

I'd like to thank Hayley for lending me this book. She's probably forgotten I have it and the evidence shows that I've only just opened its pages. I'm glad I have, here is what I have learnt;

Mark Thomas is a very angry man, I knew this already, though only through hearsay, I've never read one of his books or seen one of his shows. The only contact I have had with him is through following him on twitter and an amnesty international podcast where he is interviewed by Robin Ince (it's very informative and amusing, you should listen to it.) I have now resolved to read his books and see his shows because he has a lot of important stuff to say and a very entertaining way of saying it.

This is a book about the arms trade and the first chapter sums up some of the facts in the form of a fictional angry rant on the Jeremy Vine show on bbc radio 2, here are some facts;
Someone is killed with a gun almost once every minute, three quarters of these people are civilians.
60 percent of small arms made by legitimate companies end up in the hands of criminal gangs, rebel groups and civilians. There are 1153 of these companies worldwide, these companies have doubled in the past 40 years.
The UK is the 2nd largest arms dealer in the world, I assume after the US.
I usually hate big lists of statistics but when they're as fucked up as that it's pretty hard to skew them so that they look good.
I never really thought about the other factors that aren't even included in the death count attributed to the arms trade, the women raped at gun point, the millions of people who get caught up in these wars and die of starvation after not being able to earn money to live and the people who die on the way to refugee camps or after they have arrived. Or the 300,000 children forced to fight as soldiers. These people may not be dying or suffering as a result of being shot but it is certainly as a result of guns.
I used to really like David Miliband, mostly because of his Johnny Depp good looks, but now I just want to write him an angry letter. This book was written in 2006 and I haven't seen any enormous stories on the news saying that this has all been reformed so I can only assume that it is still just as bad if not worse.
The main point in setting this chapter in a fictional interview seems to be illustrating the fact that the media as well as the government want to cover all this up, in reality Mark Thomas was ushered out of there before he realised he hadn't made any of the points he wanted to make.
But he has been let to write this book, which is available to buy by any member of the public to read, and yet I'm sure a ridiculous percentage of the population are ignorant to it all. I think informative films about global economy, the arms trade, political prisoners, mass hunger and an infinite list of other important issues should be broadcast in the middle of x-factor instead of a shiny display of products that we couldn't possibly be happy without. We need more people to be educated and to understand the truth of what's out there before they are given the option to form the opinion that Mark Thomas does not have the right to say that British Companies should not be funding the arms trade and therefore not funding half a million deaths a year. It's all so disheartening but I am glad that there are people out there making the effort to air these issues, write these books and organise events to raise awareness and try to do something about it. The key is to reach the masses, not just the tiny left-wing, geeky minority.
Sorry this has turned into some sort of political rant, it has hit a nerve, please go and read it, and whilst you're at visit;
Amensty International
and read about some of the shit that's going on in the world, I know it's depressing and harrowing and awful but it's worse to ignore it.
Sorry for preaching. I think that the most important thing to get from all this aside from the statistics is the fact that it is possible to convey this knoweldge in a funny and entertaining way instead of some harrowing images set to a Coldplay song. Can we please give Mark Thomas his own prime time slot on a Saturday night? It won't solve the world issues but it will be a start to educate Britain.

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Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Day one, Book one

A social History of Madness -Stories of the Insane 1987
Roy Porter
Chapter 6. Mad Women.

There is no chapter in this book called 'mad men', presumably because it would get mixed up with a BBC4 drama series set in the world of advertising in 1960s New York. Or it could be because women are just notably CRAZY. I certainly get this impression but I've only read this one chapter, I'm sure the rest of the book, I have 11 chapters left to read, will tell many stories of many crazy crazy men.

Margery Kemp features quite heavily in the first 9 pages of the chapter. I have only been introduced to Margery's writing in my 'History of English' lectures before so I didn't know too much about her apart from an in depth knowledge of her pronouns. (if there's one thing I can write an essay about it's the history of pronouns in the English language). Margery Kemp is important in historical linguistics as it is the first known biography written in English. It was nice to read something about what she actually wrote in the autobiography rather than just analysing the grammar. I now have an overview of who she was and how fucking insane she was.
The pages just map instances of weeping, wailing, abandoning children, talking to imaginary friends and blaming all of this on religious intervention. No one ever sent her to a doctor and she just ran from priest to priest some of whom encouraged her and some of whom told her to piss off. My favourite sentence on the matter is this;
“Her fellow English pilgrims had found her a nuisance with her continual wailing.”
She has only been diagnosed for her madness posthumusly, using her biography to list the symptoms and her madness has been put down to 'religious hysteria'. It is absolutely amazing to see how many of these stories of 'mad women' are linked to religion and it is very hard to correlate whether it is the madness that has driven the women to religion or the religion that has driven the women to madness, they probably encourage each other I expect.
Another of the main factors which madness is generally attributed to in women, at least historically, is sexual frustration. I shall certainly keep this in mind when self diagnosing myself if I'm feeling a bit 'mad'. I'm quite sure, however, that if I ever start getting an overwhelming urge to kiss male lepers that kissing female ones instead is not the best solution as someone advised Margery that it was;
“At another point she was overcome by a desire to kiss male lepers; her confessor advised her to stick to women.”
If I ever come to you with this problem please advise me to go to a psychiatrist, and not a psychoanalyst;
I've never read any Freud and maybe that should be a task for later in this project but I'm sure after reading this chapter that he was full of shit. Diagnosing a girl as being sexually attracted to her father because she didn't want to shag her father's friend seems a bit silly. His assertion that 'it simply is not healthy for an adolescent girl, when kissed out of the blue by a close friend of her father, to feel disgust.' Taking some of my dad's friends as examples, if they had kissed me when I was 14 I'm almost certain I would have vomited in their face. Maybe I'm just bloody insane! Freud also claims that the same girl must be in want of him sexually because she could smell smoke in her dreams and he was a smoker, this must say more about his desires than hers but who am I to start psychoanalysing Freud?
As I have said above I should probably read more about this before dismissing him completely, he seems to have had a big impact in literary theory if nothing else. It all seems madder than the madness he's analysising though.

The main thing I've learned reading this chapter is that despite all of my anxieties, oddities and occasional outbursts I'm probably not 'mad' and that I'm glad that if I do go 'mad' I live in a society where the best treatment won't be to lock me in a plain room to wail. Reading this chapter also caused me to look up the word 'vainglory' the definition of which is “excessive or ostentatious pride especially in one's achievements”. I shall use it tomorrow.


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Sunday, 29 November 2009

How can you help?

How can you help?

Suggest things for me to read!
This can be anything from science to philosophy to religion, history, politics, mathematics, psychology, ANYTHING!

Just a note to say that I am doing a degree in linguistics and so will probably refrain from including linguistic readings in this project. This isbecause I like to believe that I would do this reading anyway without the disipline of a daily project. If I find anything super interesting though, I'll be sure to let you know!


Make your own project at: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Hello, My name is Hannah and for 100 days I plan to read a chapter of nonfiction each day and write a page about what I have learnt. I will post my findings here so that other people can learn stuff too!

This is a project in conjunction with Josie Long's "One Hundred Days to Make Me a Better Person."

From December 1st, Josie and a group of comedians, writers and musicians will be trying to make themselves better, every day, for a hundred days. Some will be working towards a big project, like learning a language, and others will be doing the same something, like writing a letter each day.

On March 10th, a show is being held to present their experiences at the London Word Festival. The gig will feature a gallery space for people to show off their own projects and all kinds of hi-jinks.

You too can do something for 100 days towards improving yourself. Make yourself friendlier, stronger, wiser or just sillier! Go to to join in!

I shall post here on December 1st with my first findings!

I hope you all learn as much as I do!