Erich Fromm and the hill that was

I do like owning a lot of books. When friends come over and we get discussing novels, I end up throwing a few in their direction to take away and read. I have a small shelf of “absolutely must keep”, while the rest (several bookcases) are in flux. Currently my library is at about 50/50, which is to say around half of them I’ve read. I’ve instituted a new scheme with the unread books: They have until the end of the year to demonstrate their worth, or I’ll be passing them on.

To this end I picked up “To Have or To Be?” by Erich Fromm from my shelf of “To Be Read”. This ended up in my library as a gift from a friend, which in turn was a gift to her. When I’ve finished it, I’ll pass it on.

The theme of the book instantly resonates. But today I want to share this line from the introduction, which just happens to be something I’ve been thinking about recently:

…we have tried to solve out existential problem by giving up the Messianic vision of harmony between humankind and nature by conquering nature, by transforming it to our own purposes until the conquest has become more and more equivalent to destruction.

Near where my parents live is a block of land that for the last five years has been a rolling hill covered in grass. It is now up for development, and I’ve watched it over the last few months be heavily excavated. When I saw it a few days ago, the hill had been transformed. It was stepped, such that houses could be built on it. The steps had been shored up with stone walls, and soon eveless suburban boxes will roll off the developers’ blueprints and onto the land.

2015-08-07 11.53.01

Rather making a house to suit the land, the developer wants to change the land to suit the house. I’m not a builder, but I do wonder what the lifespan of a house is that has been built on a newly disturbed hill, sliced apart because its gradient didn’t suit.

What would happen instead if we asked the hill what sort of house would it prefer to be built on it? What sort of shift in our psyche would be achieved (or be needed) to change our dwellings to suit the land, rather than shape the land to suit our dwellings?

Mindfulness and the God-shaped hole

People who know me well will have heard me speak of the God-Shaped hole. Many years ago when I eased my way out of the Catholic system, I discovered that there was still in my mind all of the wiring around belief and worship with nothing specific to believe or worship. Into the God-shaped hole might fall other things that I might for a time start to worship like God: girlfriends, the concept of breakfast, Batman.

I have been meditating regularly every day, using guided meditations by Stephan Pende Wormland, Sam Harris, and Tara Brach. The common thread from these is understanding and seeing thoughts as arising in my mind, but not being drawn into the story behind them.

The thought of a universal arbiter watching me and noting my actions in a huge ledger which is compared to a massive tome of rules, has been a pervasive and automatic response in my mind. Into that God-shaped hole fall people around me, and I become sure of two things: they are judging me, and it matters. Logically I know instead that it is possible they are judging me, and either way it really doesn’t matter.

Mindfulness is allowing me to unlearn the automatic thought of being judged, and highlight the automatic thought when it arises, and I can see it for what it is rather than be drawn into its story. The mental infrastructure around the God-shaped hole is being unwound.


About this time ten years ago I travelled for a week in Japan. Towards the end of my stay, I took a shinkansen south from Tokyo to Hiroshima. On the way I passed the time memorising the kanji of the cities the train passed through. I hadn’t really appreciated before the trip just how Japanese writing worked, with each character taking a specific syllable sound, and once memorised, I began to see them repeated in other words.

東京 To-kyo
京都 Kyo-to
大阪 Osa-ka
広島 Hiro-shima

I was travelling to Hiroshima in order to see the peace park that had been constructed after it was bombed in 1945. I had been told the story of Sadako (貞子) and the one thousand paper cranes when I was in grade 6, and learned how to fold an origami crane. Some time later while at university, I wrote a philosophy of science piece about the Little Boy bomb in the moment it was suspended above Hiroshima and below the Enola Gay, using actor-network theory to explore the stories that rolled from it.

When I told people that I was going to/had been to visit Hiroshima, the first thing they ask was “Isn’t it radioactive?” I’ve always thought that it was the bombing of the city that changed the way we approached the word “radioactive.” Before this, radioactive material were seen as wonder stuff, with health spas advertising their health-giving waters that contained traces of radium. After the bomb, and when Time magazine sent in a photographer to record the destruction, the world saw effect the demon touch of high density gamma rays could have on concrete, wood, and flesh.

The residual radioactive material in and around Hiroshima today is very minimal. The mass of uranium used in the Little Boy was 64kg, which would amount to a volume a bit less than a soccer ball (enriched uranium is very dense stuff). When the bomb exploded, a little of it was converted to energy, while the rest was scatter over the city and surrounding country. When I was there, this radioactive fallout that killed many of the survivors with strange varieties of cancers had long since been diluted by 60 years worth of time.

I had spent the afternoon in the peace park, visiting the museum, reading and seeing stories of individual survivors of the blast, with word rolling around my mind like searing, flesh, hanging, rags, heat, blast, crying, wreckage, rubble, burning, fire, blaze, melting. I went and stood on the hypo-centre of the bomb, and looked up, imagining a human-made sun blooming above my head. I made a paper crane and left it in the park.

To clear my mind I walked a block away into a mall, and into Japanese normality. Teenagers were hanging in groups laughing and talking to each other. Shoppers hurried between stores, carrying bags home in the evening peak hour. Music played. It was a summer night in a city.

Having reached my cultural threshold, I bought McDonald’s, and a bottle of saki. Walking back to my hotel, I walked over a bridge where guitar players were singing covers of Elvis. That night, I got drunk, ate maccas, and fell asleep watching a Korean horror movie.

Some time later, in London, I bought a folio of atomic test explosion photos by Michael Light off a remainders table for two pounds.

Daily Risk Generator

The school that author John Marsden founded, Candlebark, (possibly) has a motto: “Take care, take risks.”

(Which, incidentally, because things sound better when said in Latin, is: “Providendum est. Assumam extrema temptaturum.”)

I wonder how someone, who has learned to live without taking risks, can learn risky behaviour?

Ultimately, I guess, the object is to explore an outcome-space. I like to think of it like the decision tree of an adventure game. Sometimes, to get to those outcomes over there you might need to step off the edge of a cliff. Or pick up a snake. Or run with scissors. Carefully.

So maybe a lists of daily challenges for someone to explore perceived risk, and learn not to fear risky behaviour?

Try this: Roll a die. Or hit this random number generator.

Now use that number to define your risk:

1. Climb a tree.
2. In a public space, spin on the spot 10 times.
3. Ask a stranger for their phone number.
4. In a public space, stand in the Karate Kid “Crane” pose for 5 seconds.
5. Lock eyes with a stranger. (If they question you, tell them why you’re doing it, and challenge them to take a risk.)
6. In a public space, sing the theme to “Astro Boy”. (Lyrics.)

Take the risk before the day’s end. (And take care!)

Got suggestions for daily risks? Share them in the comments!

The Value of Giving Up

I passed a man in an alley who was standing in front of a brick wall, slowly beating his head against it. His forehead was bloody, and it was clear he was in lots of pain.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

*thump* “I need to get through this wall,” he told me. *thump*

“Dude! You’re hurting yourself!” I said.

*thump* “I know.” *thump* “But I mustn’t-” *thump* “-give up.” *thump*



I’ve grown up with the mantra of “don’t give up” and it works really well for many situations. Sometimes I have needed to hold course and endure.

And sometimes I’ve found myself in a cul-de-sac, and I’ve worked and worked and worked, and haven’t moved. And in those times I needed to stop, and climb out.

This has been true for personal relationships and professional jobs. Enduring has been causing me more harm than walking away.

The question is: how do I recognise the difference between the thing I should endure and the thing I need to give up?

Sometimes, it’s not a matter of giving up entirely. Sometimes, I might just need to rethink my approach.

Recognise that I might be using my head the wrong way to get through a brick wall.


I saw Vincent Van Gogh today. He was driving a car, but I still recognised him from his red hair and red beard. He was wearing black-framed glasses, which suited him, but I imagine he only needs to wear while driving. Traffic police, if they ever had cause to pulling him over, might notice this while mispronouncing his surname. Slightly more educated police end up calling him (still incorrectly) Van Go, which Vincent might chuckle at, thinking that it would make a nice name for a courier company, or a mechanic specialising in Ford Transits.

Young Louis Pasteur

I think this story is apocryphal, like the tale of the monk running from Brie to Camembert and took the secret of cheesemaking with him. I like the idea of Young Louis Pasteur…a bit like Young Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps he could hunt vampires in his spare time.

Marscraft, the beta

I have uploaded the VSSEC Marscraft beta to my public Dropbox. Download the files here.


1. Unzip the Marscraft to somewhere convenient.

2. Inside is a folder called “The Resource Pack”. It has a single folder called “Marscraft”. This needs to go into the Minecraft resourcepacks folder. The easiest way to get to it is:
o Start Minecraft;
o From the main menu, go to “Options…”
o Go to “Resource Packs…”
o Click “Open resource pack folder”.
o Copy the whole “Marscraft” folder into “resourcepacks”.

3. In the “Select Resource Packs” menu, move Marscraft from “Available Resource Packs” to “Selected Resource Packs”.

4. Now for the “Marscraft 3.3” folder in “The Save Game”. This needs to be copied to “saves” folder in the “minecraft” folder (just under the “resourcepacks” folder.)

Playing the Marscraft Adventure Map.

You are an explorer on Mars. You wake up one bright Mars morning in the Gale Crater to the sound of alarms. The Lovecraft rover has gone haywire, and needs to be retrieved.
Your mission is to:
1. Track down the Mars rover.
2. Repair the return trail between the base and the rover.
3. Write down the Rover report data, and note it down its location on this sheet.
4. Ride the rover back to base!

If you download the file and try it out, do let me know! Drop me a line either to my email (subject line: Marscraft beta) or contact me through Twitter @seanmelliott. I will put your name down on the “Testers” credits, and will send you a thank you present.

Turning Height Maps into Contour Maps

One of the items I want for students to use in Marscraft is an actual, real world, physical map to write down the data being shed by the broken rover.

The Marscraft surface has been created using a height map of the Gale Crater on Mars, which is a greyscale image. Each pixel’s shading represents the surface height at that area. Black is the lowest point, and white is the highest, with all the shades of grey being a height in between.
Height Map of the Gale Crater
It was two functions within Photoshop. First I reduced the number of colours used in the height map using Photoshop’s Image > Adjustments > Posterize… This blends the areas into a smaller set of averaged colour groups. In theory, these new areas are within a certain height range.
Posterize Function in Photoshop
The second step is to find the edges of these contour blobs. Filter > Stylize > Find Edges This creates a line drawing, which is now our contour map for the original height map.
Gale Crater Contour Map
Changing the number of levels in the Posterize step varies the number of contour lines.

Next: creating the student worksheet.