In the latest issue, we published letters on free will, the Tana river, feminism, restaurant names and scallions...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
FREE WILL...AND DR JOHNSON’S BEDTIME
Re: Neurons v free will (Intelligence, March/April)
With 100 billion neurons and about 700 trillion synapses, the human brain is tremendously complex. I think it highly unlikely that we will come to a complete understanding of ourselves within our lifetime. Although modern neuroscience is a fascinating field, I imagine its development to be analogous to astronomy at the time of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo: we can mark the tides, we can use wood and stone to observe the motions of the stars and planets, but we haven’t even invented the telescope yet.
Adam Pagenkopf, La Crosse, Wisconsin
I was glad that Anthony Gottlieb agreed with Dr Johnson that “we know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t.” It is a statement of splendid common sense. But it was also an exasperated expression of fatigue, to put an end to “any discussion of the perplexed question of fate and free will, which I [Boswell] attempted to agitate.” It was, as Boswell notes, “late in the night”. They had come back from a long evening of discussion about language, in English, Italian and French. The good doctor, aged 60, simply wanted to go to bed. If he lacked the stamina of his friend, half his age, who can blame him?
Canon Nicholas Turner, Skipton, North Yorkshire
Gottlieb mentioned Raymond Tallis, who suggests that neurological experiments about free will are looking at the wrong kinds of action. Choosing to set an alarm clock to get to the lab on time, he says, or declining other appointments so that one can take part in the tests, are “better examples of the sorts of actions that we’d like to regard as free and rational than are twitches of the wrist.” I suggest that the opposite is more accurate. To paraphrase your article: “It would be crazy”, if one had the choice, to get out of bed at the sound of an alarm rather than sleeping a little longer. B.F. Skinner comes to mind, who thought that we talk about free will when we don’t understand the cause of behaviour.
Per Södersten, Stockholm
Dr Tallis claims that “trying to find human life in the brain is like trying to hear the rustle of a forest by listening to a seed.” I think trying to find the mind in the brain is more like opening up your laptop and trying to find the operating system.
THERE'S MORE TO THAT STORY
Re: Kenya's secret river (Places, March/April)
J.M. Ledgard’s romanticism about Africa in his article about the Tana river in Kenya could only match David Livingstone’s. Africans have long learnt to live modestly, but modesty has no place in the global economy, and in order to trade with the world, we Kenyans must build ports like everyone else. So I think the writer was misguided when he summed up our effort to participate in world trade as a calamity. He is well aware of the “river people’s” lack of opportunities, and of the recurrent famines that affect them. But my main grievance was that he did not point out exactly how the Lamu port will affect the river delta. At one point he said that the forest cover and wildlife population in the area have been declining since we gained our independence, but he failed to mention the fact that forest cover in the wider country has tripled in the last ten years alone, or that Kenya leads the world in a bid to abolish the ivory trade (along with other efforts in wildlife conservation). I appreciate his interest in our beautiful river, but wish his observations of the Tana could have been keener.
WOMEN'S LIB BEGAN IN 1963
Re: 1962 (Features, January/February)
I read Matthew Engel’s article about 1962 with interest. But it was the following year, 1963, that was a turning point for many women. That year saw the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”, which described the widespread unhappiness of housewives and changed the vision of the future for millions of women. I was 19 in 1963, and living in Geneva, when I read the book. Women in those days were allowed to go to university to study whatever we liked, but, after graduating, many were shunted into one of two careers: being a secretary or getting married. After reading the book, many young women decided there would have to be a third option: getting married, maybe, but not without having our own career.
Katie Breen-Muller, Paris
HE SHALL HAVE MUSIC...
Re: How to manage your music (Features, March/April)
I am just old enough to have used everything from vinyl to mp3. Then, two days after I read your article, Spotify was finally launched in Germany, where I live. It is simply the most life-changing online service since Facebook. With Wi-Fi widely available in Europe, I now have music of decent quality everywhere I go with my phone. It is also extremely social.
I was sceptical at first. Do I want all my Facebook friends to know what I’m listening to? But then I saw that one of my friends was listening to Madonna’s new album. I posted a snappy three-line review on Facebook (I hated it), which sparked a debate among my friends from London to Abu Dhabi. People connect through music, and for that reason Spotify is a great tool. For me, it is near-perfect and the closest answer we have to the question of how to manage your music.
Simon Kern, Frankfurt
Re: The Line of Beauty: The redhead (Style, March/April)
As a natural-born ginger-haired person whose carpet matches the drapes, I was disappointed that you could not find more genuine redheads to feature in your piece. Lucille Ball, Ann-Margret and David Bowie are all faux.
KNOWING YOUR SCALLIONS
Re: Don't mess with mash (Intelligence, March/April)
Simon Hopkinson’s recipes are nearly infallible, but I have to point out a correction. In his piece about mashed potato, he wrote of “that much loved Irish dish, colcannon”, made, he said, with potatoes and spring onions. Potatoes and spring onions (or as we call them here, scallions), are used to make the equally well-loved Irish dish, champ.
Barry Mark, Belfast
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
Re: Alphabet soup (Intelligence, March/April)
Tom’s Kitchen in Chelsea is very much not “defunct”, as it was claimed in your article on restaurant names.The parent company did go into receivership, but the restaurant never closed. You may be confused with Tom’s Plaice, the sister fish restaurant, which did close, or Tom Aikens, the formal sibling, which shut for a refit but recently reopened.
I was walking with an out-of-town friend a while back when we passed Momofuku noodle bar. He did a double take. “Who’s going to eat at a restaurant called Mama Fuck You?”
HONESTY IS THE BEST COVER POLICY
Re: Cate Blanchett, Theatre Boss (Features, March/April)
It is very refreshing to see not a “perfect picture” on the cover of a magazine but an honest one. To me – a woman who has just turned 50 – perfection is an unrealistic expectation. Your photograph of Cate Blanchett, at the wonderful age of 42, is refreshing. Imperfection is perfection.
Georgia Blau Rapkin
Illustration by Arthur Chiverton