Thursday, 19 November 2020

A Sad Victory (2019)


After having seen the AlphaGo movie last week, I found that I agreed with much of this piece (HERE). 

What astounded me about watching the documentary is the deep sadness that permeated Lee Sedol’s defeat and AlphaGo’s victory. With every defeat Lee Sedol looked devastated. But it wasn’t only him. Almost everyone looked sad, or somewhat troubled. A member of the DeepMind team said: ‘I couldn’t celebrate. It was fantastic that we had won. But there was such a big part of me that saw this man trying so hard and being so disappointed…’. Even Demis Hassabis, founder and CEO of DeepMind, confessed feeling ‘ambivalent’.

What is most surprising about the match is that the outcome did not feel like a win for humanity. It did not feel similar to when we conquer a disease, or when the first human being landed on the moon. It felt like we might be losing more than what we might be gaining.

You might think that such sadness simply comes out of sympathy for Lee Sedol. Or perhaps out of nostalgia for the old times; something that we should and will get over. Maybe. But maybe it is a kind of warning. A reminder that not all technological developments lead to a better life. A caution to remember to put human beings first. Let us never forget that technology is a tool, a means, and never an end in itself. Technology is valuable only insofar as it enhances our wellbeing. And AlphaGo and other AI programs still have to prove themselves in that regard.

Factum Arte (2020)

HERE is a great article in The Guardian about the work of Adam Lowe and his company Factum Arte. It includes an appreciation of the wonderful Cast Court galleries of the Victoria & Albert Museum:

The grandest spaces in the whole of the mighty Victoria and Albert Museum are the Cast Courts, built high enough to hold a full-scale replica of Trajan’s Column in Rome, which is colossal even in two pieces. No less imposing are the London museum’s 19th-century copies of Michelangelo’s David, not to mention its duplicates of Viking carvings and even the entire front of a Spanish cathedral. All these casts, which were recently cleaned, are a curious spectacle. Why did the Victorians create such a comprehensive “virtual art” collection? To make a clever point about a copy being just as good as the real thing – or simply to bring great work to the people?

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Ode to Desolation (2020)

Desolation Peak is a mountain located in the North Cascade mountains in Washington state in the US. At the top of the peak is a fire lookout. Its most famous lookout was Jack Kerouac - who spent 63 days in the lookout in 1956 - and used the experience as material for Dharma Bums (1958) and Desolation Angels (1960).  Kerouac had been inspired to spend time as a lookout after meeting the poet Gary Snyder in San Francisco. Here is Kerouac's description of how he got there.  

Now I was beginning to see the Cascades on the northeast horizon, unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities, enough to make you gulp. The road ran right through the dreamy fertile valleys of the Stilaquamish [Stillaguamish] and the Skagit, rich butterfat valleys with farms and cows browsing under that tremendous background of snow-pure heaps. The further north I hitched the bigger the mountains got till I finally began to feel afraid. I got a ride from a fellow who looked like a bespectacled careful lawyer in a conservative car, but turned out that he was the famous Bat Lindstrom the hardtop racing champion and his conservative automobile had in it a souped-up motor that could make it go a hundred and seventy miles an hour ...

The fellows who picked me up were loggers, uranium prospectors, farmers, they drove me through the final big town of Skagit Valley, Sedro Woolley, a farming market town, and then out as the road got narrower and more curved among cliffs and the Skagit River, which we'd crossed on 99 as a dreaming belly river with meadows on both sides, was now a pure torrent of melted snow pouring narrow and fast between muddy snag shores. Cliffs began to appear on both sides. The snow-covered mountains themselves had disappeared, receded from my view, I couldn't see them any more but now I was beginning to feel them more.

HERE is a wonderful short film by Lindsay Hagen about Desolation Peak, and Jim Henterley, one of the fire watchmen who remains in service on the Desolation Peak lookout. 

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Notes on the Diagram (2020)

Diagrams are great because you can put anything in them. No wonder they have been so useful for generations of kooks, mystics, Cubists, ecstatic poetics, Dadaists, Futurists, and weird scientists. A diagram is a perfect visual schema for posing impossible things, invisible forces, enigmas like the future—all posed as perfectly plausible vectors. The diagram even outdid the camera as the early twentieth century’s best new thing because it could depict things in the universe that exceed the eye, like particles, waves, and quarks. A diagram’s scale is endless. It can indicate how dwarfed we are by the universe, or how busy the microscopic world is, all mapped out on the back of some envelope. Tides, black holes, white dwarfs, red rings around Saturn, crazy particles, the waves of the Big Bang, all teleporting around in unstable ways, all this stuff and how it interacts can appear equally on the diagram, democratically, like the pedestrians in Times Square or the people in a Saul Steinberg cartoon all walking around together. The diagram’s arms, its vectors, embrace everything at once. Parts are not distinct from wholes, and divisions between aesthetic formats don’t have to exist. Diagrams aren’t medium-specific: everything is a continuum; everything is relational. In this sense a diagram is utopic, showing how things should or might go, reenvisioning things expansively, not merely describing them categorically. It can include contradictory grammars, fragments, part-objects, nouns and verbs, acts and objects.

From an essay on diagrams in The Paris Review, by the artist Amy Sillman (HERE).

Thursday, 12 November 2020

November Sun (2020)


A beautiful November day - bright, mild, and with just enough of a breeze to taste the sea. 

Image Copyright M.G. Reed 2020

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Working Works of Art (1999)


On page 282 of A Story as Sharp as a Knife Robert Bringhurst says: "The dugout and the paddle and the spear, the stone knife, shell knife, bow and arrow, deadfall, snare, and the fishhook, fishclub, fishing line and bone harpoon are working works of art, not the products of assembly lines and factories. No two such tools are the same. None, as a result, is just a tool, and none works by purely material means. In such a world, there are no dumb animals and no inert materials. Everything that is has ears and voices, and every word a human speaks is overheard".

Saturday, 31 October 2020

The Book of Delightful and Strange Designs (1893)


HERE is a copy of The book of delightful and strange designs; being one hundred facsimile illustrations of the art of the Japanese stencil-cutter, to which the gentle reader is introduced by Andrew White Tuer (1838-1900). 

For details of the Kata-game stencil printing technique see Kata-game; Japanese Stencils in the Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum by Elaine Evans Dee (HERE)

Friday, 30 October 2020

The Mullaghmore monster wave (2020)

Some years ago, whilst en route from Coleraine to Galway, I had a small scale car crash on the outskirts of Bundoran in County Donegal in Ulster. The damage wasn't extensive, but the car wasn't fit to be driven any further. I had to get to Galway that day, which meant I had two long (and expensive) taxi rides to get there. 

I left the hire car at the side of the road, and three days later it still hadn't been picked up. This didn't really surprise me, as I assumed that Bundoran was a typically quiet west coast town. 

Little did I know that Bundoran is a world-renowned surfing area. This week a few kilometres down the road, in Mullaghmore County Sligo, a local surfer Conor Maguire has surfed an enormous wave - and has claimed that it is the biggest Irish wave ever surfed.

More in The Guardian HERE.

Photo copyright Conor Flanagan.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Tokaidochu hizakurige (1802 - 1822)


The image above is from an edition of Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige (東海道中膝栗毛) published in 1907 (the title is usually translated into English as Shank's Mare). The Hizakurige is a picaresque novel that was written by Jippensha Ikku (十返舎一九, 1765–1831), and published in 12 parts between 1802 and 1822.  It describes the comic (mis)adventures of two travelers, Yaji and Kita, as they make their way between Kyoto and Edo on the Tōkaidō, the main road joining the two cities. More HERE.

Friday, 23 October 2020

The selflessness of quotation (2020)


HERE is a long interview with James Wood by Becca Rothfeld on how book reviewing and literary criticism work. Wood is a US resident British critic who is Professor of Literary Practice at Harvard, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the author of two novels and six books of criticism. 

Q: You’re known for being an enthusiastic quoter. What role do you think quotation plays or should play in good criticism?

I like what Stanley Cavell says is the critic’s job – to point at the thing and say, 'do you see/hear/feel that?' The quoting is the pointing. Of course, it’s an essential element of the re-imagining or re-telling that brings the work alive: you plunge the reader into the text via quotation. But it’s also an essential part of making a rational argument. Indeed, I’d say that precisely because the critic’s task isn’t quite propositional – because we don’t deal in proofs – our rhetorical or persuasive argumentation has to be as scrupulously quote-heavy as the reader can bear. Just because there is wide latitude in what can be plausibly said about a text, doesn’t mean that the forms of rationality are suspended: on the contrary, we make arguments, and we adduce evidence (i.e., quotes) to support those arguments. That’s a rational procedure, if not the movement of a scientific argument beyond doubt.

There’s something more, perhaps, something almost ethical: I like the selflessness of quotation, the modesty, the absurdly beautiful, almost-tautological ideal that the work of criticism (as Walter Benjamin apparently dreamed) might be made up only of quotation and would thus just be the entire original text, written out word for word, or rather re-written word for word. We have that quasi-tautological experience sometimes, don’t we, when we are copying out a long quotation, and following the syntax of someone else’s prose like a car following a road. I suppose memorization is the same gesture: the move away from self toward someone else, the 'humanism of the other.'



Thursday, 22 October 2020

Monday, 5 October 2020

Lectures on Ventilation (1869)

Some illustrations from - Lectures on ventilation: being a course delivered in the Franklin Institute, of Philadelphia, during the winter of 1866-67. By Lewis W Leeds, special agent of the Quartermaster-General for the Ventilation of Government Hospitals during the war; and Consulting Engineer of Ventilation and Heating for the US Treasury Department.

The sub-title tells you something about the author's view on the issue: Man's own breath is his greatest enemy.

Published in New York John Wiley & Son  1869.

The full book is available HERE.


Friday, 2 October 2020

Inspiration Information


Inspiration Information is an album by Shuggie Otis (b. 1953). It was released in 1974 on Epic Records, and it featured a single with the same title as the album. For a long time I thought it would be difficult, or impossible, to create a cover version that did justice to this original. But the version of Inspiration Information by Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, recorded in 2011, is superb. In its own way, it is every bit as magnificent as the original. 

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Poems Without an ‘I’ (2020)


An excellent set of reviews of recent translations of chinese poetry by Madeleine Thien HERE in the New York Review of Book.

It includes the following explanation.

The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable. Eliot Weinberger, Lucas Klein, Burton Watson, Stephen Owen, and David Hinton, among others, have set down superb translations, while noting that, in bringing Chinese poetry into English, more things go missing than in translations from other languages. Word-for-word translations, writes François Cheng in his masterful Chinese Poetic Writing (1977), can give “only the barest caricature.” Ha Jin describes a particular Li Bai poem as obtaining a beauty that “can be fully appreciated only in the Chinese.” Hinton observes that a particular line, severed from its radically different philosophical context, “fails absolutely in translation.” But the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems begins the moment a mark is made. Chinese ideograms are composed of strokes, and each of the brushstrokes references others. Cheng gives this line from Wang Wei as an example, followed by its literal translation:

木 末 芙 蓉 花

branch end magnolia flowers

The character for “branch”
begins to transform at its tips and bud into life. In the third character, 艹 (the radical for “grass” 艸 or “flower”) bursts forth from the crown of the words 芙蓉 (magnolia) and ends in 花 (flower). Further, in a simultaneous layer of images, the third character, Cheng writes, “contains the element 天 ‘man,’ which itself contains the element 人 ‘Man’ (homo),” or person. “Face” 容 is visible in the fourth ideogram, and the fifth contains 化 (transformation). Thus the line also records a human trajectory: spiritual metamorphosis and then mortality embedded in nature itself.




Tuesday, 22 September 2020

The Writer–Translator Equation (2020)

In the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks writes about a translation he is doing, and compares it in detail with how he is writing his latest novel. 

The translator is a writer. The writer is a translator. How many times have I run up against these assertions?—in a chat between translators protesting because they are not listed in a publisher’s index of authors; or in the work of literary theorists, even poets (“Each text is unique, yet at the same time it is the translation of another text,” observed Octavio Paz). Others claim that because language is referential, any written text is a translation of the world referred to.

In recent months, I have been dividing my working day between writing in the morning and translating in the afternoon. Maybe comparing the two activities would be a good way to test this writer–translator equation.



Monday, 21 September 2020

It All Connects (2016)

Adam Curtis is a fascinating British film maker. He works for the BBC. HERE is a brilliant interview of Curtis from 2016, by the novelist Jonathan Lethem. 

In the interview they dicuss the idea of a hyperobject.

Curtis and I briefly discussed a word coined by the critic Timothy Morton to describe a problem so vast in space and time that you are unable to apprehend it: a “hyperobject.” Global warming is a classic example of a hyperobject: it’s everywhere and nowhere, too encompassing to think about. Global markets, too. But naming a hyperobject alone is of limited use; human cognition knows all too well how to file such imminent imponderables away, on a “to-do” list that’s never consulted again. 

For an example of his work, see his three part documentary for the BBC, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. In the series, Curtis suggests that instead of liberating humanity in any way, computers have "distorted and simplified our view of the world around us."


Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Seeing with Fresh Eyes: Meaning, Space, Data, Truth. (2020)

Edward Tufte's latest book is in press, and will be shipped in October. One of the two-page spreads above (more HERE).

Saturday, 12 September 2020

The Writing Life (1989)

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard is a short (111 pages), but wonderful book,  about what she had learned about being a writer. It is beautifully written, and almost every page has something deep to say about living, thinking, loving, and writing. 
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

A Second Chance (2020)

HERE in the New York Review of Books is a wonderful story told by Janet Malcolm about how she learnt how to respond to cross-examination in a famous US libel case. 


I recently wrote about Gregory Batesons definition of information: ‘...what we mean by information—the elementary unit of information—is a difference which makes a difference...’.  I refered to this as not even a tautology (the saying of the same thing twice over using different words). I was right, it isn't a tautology. 

The phrase 'a difference which makes a difference' is a diacope. This is a literary device formed by the repetition of a word or phrase before and after an intervening word or phrase.

The canonical example of a diacope is in Hamlet: ' be, or not to be!'

The OED describes it as ‘A figure by which two words that naturally stand together, especially two parts of a compound word, are separated by the intervention of another word’ (Webster 1864).  Another famous example is the first sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'.

Still, my favourite is Bateson's.

Saturday, 5 September 2020

A difference, which makes a difference.

At a deep level, translation deals with the rendering of ideas or information from one form of expression into another. Into different dialects, languages, scripts, or media. It is the concept of difference which also helps us to define an idea, or a unit of information. The celebrated scientist and philosopher Gregory Bateson (1904 - 1980) addressed this issue in the Nineteenth Annual Korzybski Memorial Lecture, which he delivered on January 9, 1970, for the Institute of General Semantics. His lecture, titled Form, Substance and Difference is a rich broth of ideas about cybernetics, information theory and mind. In the essay Bateson defines information: ‘...what we mean by information—the elementary unit of information—is a difference which makes a difference...’.  This wonderful phrase of Bateson’s, a difference which makes a difference, was later used by Robert Bringhurst to also define an idea. On face value it is meaningless, it is not even a tautology (the saying of the same thing twice over using different words). But Bateson’s phrase tells us something about both language, and about experiments in the physical sciences.

It is universally the case, that if we make repeated measurements of a physical quantity, such as the mass of a potato or othermacroscopic object, with a sufficiently sensitive balance or measurement device, we see small differences between the measurements. If the time period between the repeated measurements is small, and the difference in the measured quantities is small, we call this variation ‘measurement error’, or ‘noise’, and we often ignore it. Our belief is that the true quantity is unchanging and that the differences in our measurements are not meaningful. Numerically we take the average of the varying measurements to smooth out these differences. But not all small differences are noise. Some are meaningful differences - in other words they are differences which make a difference. A number of Nobel prizes in science have been won by investigators who chose to find the cause of small differences that others had either not noticed, or had noticed and ignored.

Bateson’s not- even tautology, also tells us something specific about the nature of the English language. The historically contingent development of English means that we should be completely unsurprised that a single word, such as difference, would be overloaded with a number of different meanings, which depend on the immediate context of its use. In Bateson’s example, he uses a single word to describe two types of difference. The first is a perceptible difference, the second a meaningful difference. In concordance with the example of experimental measurement, we can sometimes perceive a difference, but it has no meaning. It does not ‘make a difference’. In other languages, which have developed and evolved through a different sequence of steps, and from different roots, these subtly distinct meanings of the word ‘difference’, might well be more usefully rendered with completely distinct words.         

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Hundred Rabbits (2016 - )

Hundred Rabbits is a small design - software - research studio based onboard a sailboat called Pino. It is run by Rekka, who is a cartoonist and writer, and Devine who is a programmer and musician.  Since 2016, they have been sailing. From Canada, the US West coast, Mexico, French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga, New Zealand, Fiji, The Marshall Islands, Japan and back to Canada.

Rekka and Devine are very productive. During the past few years they have created an ecosystem of low power, open-source, software tools for programming and design, interactive musical projects, computer games, and books. They focus on alternative ways to store power and minimum viable solutions for technological tooling. HERE.

Friday, 28 August 2020

You Will, You Will, You Will (2020)

This is excellent. The Irish postal service, An Post, has released a new set of stamps in celebration of 25 years of one of my all time favourite sit-coms Father Ted. Pure Craggy Island gold.    

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Dread, beat and blood (2006)

Vivien Goldman (b. 1952) is a British journalist, writer and musician. I first read her work in the weekly music paper Sounds in the late 1970s - she focused on punk, reggae, and post-punk bands. Goldman had for a time been Bob Marley's publicist, and in 1981 wrote his biography: Soul Rebel, Natural Mystic. 

HERE is a later piece that she wrote on the events of the night in 1976 when Marley, his band, and family, were attacked by a gang of heavily armed gunmen at his home in Jamaica.

A recent celebration of Goldman's disparate and interesting work as a writer and musician, celebrating her 64th birthday, is HERE on NPR. 

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Donald Hall’s Amanuensis (2020)

HERE in the Paris Review is a wonderful piece about the growth of a warm personal relationship between the poet Donald Hall and his assistant Kendel Currier. What started as a professional role blossomed over a long period into a rich and mutually valued working friendship. Currier became a vital part of Hall's working pattern: an amanuensis.


Sunday, 16 August 2020

Fire and grass-bedding construction 200 thousand years ago at Border Cave, South Africa

HERE is a paper in Science, reporting evidence of human bedding from 200,000 years ago. The Abstract reads:
We report the discovery of grass bedding used to create comfortable areas for sleeping and working by people who lived in Border Cave at least 200,000 years ago. Sheaves of grass belonging to the broad-leafed Panicoideae subfamily were placed near the back of the cave on ash layers that were often remnants of bedding burned for site maintenance. This strategy is one forerunner of more-complex behavior that is archaeologically discernible from ~100,000 years ago.

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Color Palettes of The New Yorker (2018)

The New Yorker has been published since 1925. Every cover is a unique illustration - HERE is a wonderful interactive presentation of the colour palettes of these illustrations made by Nicholas Rougeux.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

John Graunt at 400 (2020)

An excellent piece on John Graunt, by Timandra Harkness in the Royal Statistical Society's magazine (HERE). Graunt was a London haberdasher born in 1620, who published in 1662 a book which laid the foundations for the statistical analysis of demographics (the study of human populations and their composition).

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Joy Unlimited (1975 / 2020)

A rare and long lost album by Harry Beckett - Joy Unlimited from 1975, has just been re-released. Beckett was born in Barbados and lived and worked for much of his life in Britain. The Observer jazz critic Dave Gelly thought that Beckett had " of the most beautiful trumpet tones I’ve ever heard".  

Late in his life he made an incredible album with Adrian Sherwood called The Modern Sound of Harry Beckett

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Love in a Time of Terror (2020)

A fantastic multi-layered, and very lyrical, essay by the writer Barry Lopez (HERE).  A sweeping view across Lopez's life experiences as a naturalist - in Australia and Alaska, and a revelation in a desolate terrain near to Willowra, in Australia’s Northern Territory, that "...most of the trouble that afflicts human beings in their lives can be traced to the failure to love".  

Lopez goes on to say: "It is more important now to be in love than to be in power... It is more important to live for the possibilities that lie ahead than to die in despair over what has been lost."

The Home Stayer (2020)

Luis Mendo is an illustrator, designer, and writer, who lives and works in Japan. His work is very widely seen on websites, in magazines, in art galleries, and also on clothing. Examples of his work, his bio, and details of a creative residence in Tokyo - called Almost Perfect - that he started with his wife Yuka are (HERE).

During the first period of COVID-19 lockdown, Luis began making wonderful cover art for a magazine that is inspired by The New Yorker, but doesn't exist (yet), called The Home Stayer (HERE).  Above is Issue 7: THE ZOOM.

Image copyright Luis Mendo: limited edition prints of the full set of Home Stayer covers available to buy (HERE).