Archive for November, 2012

‘As (the) avalanche of information has piled up, biologists have remarked upon the striking similarity between the code used to program computers and the genes that encode our living selves. The more geneticists learn, the more tempting it is to think of DNA as the software of life.’ (page 5).

‘If computers can be programmed, and living things are not so different from computers, they reason that life can be programmed.’ (ibid).

So, hold on a minute, let’s run that last sentence again: ‘If computers can be programmed…’ duh, ok ‘…and living things are not so different from computers…’ just how different is that? ‘… they reason that life can be programmed.’ According to biohackers human beings are ‘not so different from computers’… but that is genetically. And with our current state of understanding of the ramifications of genetic engineering, that could mean… anything.

This sounds like an updated version of on the one hand the old chestnut from as far back as L Ron Hubbard’s ‘Dianetics’, and on the other a meld of modern bio-engineering.

‘Biologists have remarked…’ then to narrow down, ‘…geneticists…’…. Ok, a question: How much computer science have these ‘biologists’, ‘geneticists’ done? Computer scientists are far more modest in their claims to knowledge. Who are these biologists, geneticists? All, some, or one or two caught unawares at a party?

First of all, we are in the field of speculation. But even here there are rules and methods. The speculation is about computation systems, and about genetic possibilities. We are playing with ideas. More crucially it must be remembered that the way these images are being used, ‘computers’, ‘genetic codes,’ is in essence as metonyms; they allow us the shorthand to manipulate very complex systems. These systems are the observed effects of the areas scientists (yes, even more general) study in greater and greater depth – not breadth, or connectivity. All these descriptive words are suggestive of observable knowledge’s conclusions. As such they are subject to interpretive filtering. These allow it to be grasped by the scientist behind the biologist, geneticist.

If we compare this with an expert in Artificial Intelligence, Marvin Minsky, who can conclude that whatever we say, we do not mean just that, because the interfaces of the apparatus between meaning, understanding and the ability to express are not a perfect match of like to like, we can perhaps be a little more wary of ourselves.

It may be that even the most complex computer system we have yet devised can only mirror the limits of our cognitive grasp of the possibilities and potentialities of the knowledge we utilise in this field. And that the mass of information biologists, geneticists conclude from only marks the points on a journey of greater and greater understanding.

This being so how ethical, how safe, is it to attempt to bioengineer from what we currently know?

That bioengineering is being successfully conducted for the sight, hearing even mobility-impaired, shows how the knowledge we currently have is producing good results, but also forces our hand into achieving a greater grasp of our materials. We are still in our infancy with this. As engineers, scientists, indeed visionaries in our fields, we seem to take our greatest leaps when under pressure, compulsion, whether self-imposed, age-related, or constrained in some other way.

The biohacker concept does seem to pivot on this, that outside the greatly narrowed opportunities the academies apportion, the kitchen-sink biologist working with basic materials ie constrained materially but not academically or in practical experience, can contribute, come up with, new research. This does seem a huge leap, though, from painstaking bio-medical trials, to manipulation of genes by hackers.

As to materials: the book cites several instances where eg a hacker was able to actually buy a second-hand ‘wet lab’ on Ebay. This she installed in a storage cupboard of her home. It was sufficient for the tests she needed to carry out to find a cheaper medicine for her child, and others like her.

So, this book infuriates slightly; but it also excites: there is a degree of over-enthusiastic vagueness, but also a deal of actual usable results emerging from the work.

My wife and son attended a Biopunk meeting, one of the first in the UK, last year. Flown in were some of the top biopunk promoters. A day’s work of talks and access to information concluded with attendees let loose on a lab, isolating their own DNA, treating it to seperate from non-necessary components. The product was then left with the people running the group and the coded-sequence results returned to them at a later date.

How is this other than just entertainment?

Here is a story, a certain man, adopted from birth, always active, boisterous, has died recently at an early age. He did not know his birth family carried the gene for skin cancer. He was hit, seemingly out of the blue, by this himself; by the time he was treated it was beyond control.

Could he have been treated earlier? Was there the treatment? Were there the early screening methods?

This is what biopunk is about.

Very real stuff.

Antony Rowland

Posted: November 10, 2012 in Chat
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Antony Rowland won the 2012 Manchester Poetry Prize.

The competition called for up to between three to five pieces, that is up to one hundred and twenty lines, of unpublished work. The judges were Ian Duhig and Frances Leviston, under the chairship of Adam O’Riordan.

Why am I so interested? I also entered. I had written some strong pieces (those who write know how this is not often the case); had a tutorial with a long-established writer which was very, very positive; and had the pieces vetted by others (another first for me). Thought I stood a damned good chance. I was not even shortlisted.

Competitions are a world by themselves. Carol Ann Duffy (an ex-tutor) once said something to the effect of one duff line in a good poem could scupper it in favour of a ‘less good’ poem without any duff lines, no matter how original the former was. That was not so in this case.

Ian Duhig has a slant way of seeing language and hard reality that is invigorating and highly humorous. Frances Leviston’s work I am hugely fond of; she writes beyond the gendered world-view of most women writers. I have been hoping to see this for some time now. Her use of language makes indeterminate the supposedly known world, she can be protean and plastic, with her little is as we take it to be. She does lack humour though – a little.

And… Antony Rowland won.

He is a professor of English at a local university. He has had two books published: The Land of Green Ginger, and now I Am a Magenta Stick (both by Salt Press); he has published academic books and articles.

He won ten thousand pounds.

Ok, everyone needs ten thousand pounds – but he’s got a reasonably paid job! Others, (ahem) haven’t.

So, what’s this pip-squeak all about, then?

First of all, I have been complaining – for years – that English poets have all the resources of that language available to them, yet restrict themselves to an ever decreasing portion of it!

And then here comes Antony Rowland, and he uses that resource wonderfully! His medium is language, language that is word-as-object – his language is rich and redolent, it is fully-textured with all the modes and sociolects of the language’s history. It is sensual, and sensory, and rich.

The only other writer with a similar ‘ear’ must be Geoffrey Hill, especially the earlier Hill, of King Log, Tenebrae.

Rowlands does not shy away from the immediate effects of language: he has a good ear for the sound of words, word clusters, for consonantal and mouth textures. He has a good ear for rhythm to keep it all together, and bucketing forward.

And he is an optimistic, roistering writer; he has verve and energy on tap. It is invigorating.

From The Land of Green Ginger


Singing herb singe roast vapours Fray: Saturday

pie-floater in Rawson market; waxy island

gelatin-coated pink flush before the comic stall….

from A History of the Beard

There’s blood in my window, yes. Forget it. Let me cover you with the suds of a laver,

curleth you with a Crisping Iron and (on the side) cutteth you with a Knife

so the Blood spitteth. You say you only came in for a mullet,

not phlebotomy? Sit still. Prepare to be flounst with irons….


The first excerpt verges on the nostalgic, before traversing a range of tones and modes. The latter begins with the fields of reference and tonal cues well established. I cannot help likening the effect of these poems to atonal music; not serialism, note: that was when atonality became defined, theorized. The language games and investigations of contemporary  poetry are all here; one reviewer wrote that Rowland’s writing occupies a mid-way point between mainstream writing and the avant-garde.

Words for me are aides de memoires, rather than objects in themselves: meaning is paramount, rather than the saying.

Communication, I have learned painfully, has had to be predominant: so many have not ‘got’ what I was doing that I have had to compromise, simplify, keep a through-line available.

Michael Alexander, in his Introduction to the Penguin, The Earliest English Poems, wrote: ‘All language is, of course, metaphoric in origin (we can only speak of what we do not know in terms of what we know)…’.

Peter Abelard (yes, that Abelard) wrote that ( in translation of a translation from Huizinga’s Men and Ideas) ‘For words do not operate in the substance of things, but evoke as much as is understood by means of them. And so their task, for which they are instituted, is to signify, that is to say, to establish understanding…’. We can maybe see the shadow of Roland Barthes in this.

But not for Antony Rowlands, oh no. He is very much an extension of the English Language-philosophy school: word is paramount.

There is work I have had to discard because I cannot get anyone to take the trouble to try and read – but not Antony Rowlands, oh no, he just goes ahead: Let them run to catch up!

Drat that man!